A couple of years ago, when Shauna Fleming became the spokesperson for National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM), it was an honor she hadn’t foreseen in 2004, when she – a high school freshman in Orange, Calif. – launched a school service project.
“I had seen that after 9/11, America’s patriotism was at an all-time high,” she says. “You’d go outside and see flags and yellow ribbons everywhere. But obviously as the war continued, that started to drop off. So one day I went to my dad and I said, ‘I really want to do something for the troops that could also kind of be used as a service project for my high school.’”
Fleming’s father suggested she collect letters to send to service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. When she asked how many she ought to collect, she was at first taken aback by his challenge: “He said, ‘Why don’t you go for a million?’”
The campaign, known as A Million Thanks, began slowly, but quickly gathered steam. Celebrities, such as actor Gary Sinise, NASCAR driver Matt Kenseth, and country music star John Michael Montgomery began to lend their support. “Before I knew it,” says Fleming, “I had a national letter-writing campaign on my hands that was literally bringing in hundreds of thousands of letters.” Six months after beginning her campaign, Fleming presented the campaign’s millionth thank-you letter – a hand-drawn card from a high school student in St. Charles, Mo. – to President George W. Bush at the White House.
Raising the Bar
Fleming took her rapid success in stride. The campaign was intense, and a lot of work – but she decided to keep going, she says, for two reasons. “One was that every person I met along the way – whether it was a military member, President Bush, or a high-ranking general – kept saying, ‘Well, you can’t stop now.’ But the other thing was the fact that I would get these letters and e-mails and phone calls from people in the military, saying how much these letters meant to them and how much it brightened their day, and what it felt like to be contacted from a stranger at home. So … it’s not really something that you can just pull the plug on and say, ‘Okay, well, that’s good enough, I’m done.’”
With her initial goal met, Fleming set a new target of 1.4 million letters – one for every member of the active-duty U.S. military. After reaching that milestone in November 2005, she set a goal of 2.6 million, to reach every member of the armed forces, including the National Guard and Reserve.
To date, more than 5 million thank-you letters have been distributed to U.S. service members through A Million Thanks, where visitors can read selected letters, view tribute videos, and send their own messages.
While Fleming – now a junior at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., remains busy with the campaign, she has a lot of help from family, and from friends she’s met along the way. Over the years, her deepening involvement with service members has led her to many military and veterans hospitals, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she saw firsthand the aftermath of wars that, due to the widespread use of improvised explosive devices, have left service members suffering from multiple injuries that may be contributing to the increasing rates of depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicide among injured troops.
Fleming’s trip to Walter Reed inspired her to set a new goal – to grant wishes to injured military men and women who have fought in the wars since 2002. Her new organization, the Wounded Soldiers Wish Foundation, will launch this summer. “It’s just as important to recognize them and make sure they’re taken care of when they get back,” Fleming says. “That’s why I started this. Wounded Soldiers Wish raises funds to grant the wishes of injured military who return from the war – anything from a vacation with their family, to a certain kind of prosthetic that may fit their active lifestyle, to helping pay rent for their family or buying the family new things.”
At the same time, Fleming will continue to collect letters of thanks, and to serve as the NMAM spokesperson. “My role,” she says, “is to make people aware of how they can participate in different things during Military Appreciation Month, whether it’s volunteering for a certain organization, or just writing letters, or anything that helps to recognize our military.”