Group plans event to salute the troops

In 1998, Maj. Jim Freeman went on a mission to help military people connect with each other.

"Vets are bonded together in a special way I can't describe," Freeman said. "If they have a wholesome environment where they can talk with each other, it can help eliminate any long-term emotional problems they might have."

So he and his wife Peggy started with clipboards and listed all the local veterans they knew. In 1999, 35 vets formed Task Force Patriot USA. Today, more than 550 vets representing 100 different churches and synagogues meet for dinner the first Thursday of every month at First Baptist Church in Lilburn.

"This is not a combat club," Freeman said. "It's a gathering of all people who made a commitment to serve their country."

Their support for each other consists of more than breaking bread together once a month. The group helps displaced and homeless veterans, provides financial assistance to military families, awards college scholarships and sponsors the Wheelchair Olympics. A month ago, Task Force Patriot participated in the dedication of the Lilburn Blue Star Memorial, sponsored by the Lady Bugs Garden Club.

But their biggest extravaganza ever, Salute to the Troops, will take place Memorial Day weekend at Stone Mountain Park. The three-day event, which commemorates the 60th birthday of the U.S. Air Force, will kick off with paratroopers jumping onto the lawn.

"As they free fall, you can hear their voices through the park sound system," Freeman said. "The park has never done anything like this before."

Special treats include hourly flyovers featuring B-2 bombers, a 50-foot flight simulator, gyro-extreme ride, guest speakers Peter Marshall and Bobby Welch, and live music from Heartland of America Band and Aaron Tippin.

"This is not a fundraiser," Freeman said. "All events are free. We want to pay tribute to our active military and raise awareness of their dedication."

This super show is not a one-shot deal. Salute to the Troops is on the calendar for the next 10 years, and Task Force Patriot is planning similar events in other major cities.

But weekend celebrations are only a minor detail. The group's main task is to set up military support groups like theirs all over the nation.

"Thousands want to do it, but can't seem to get it started," Freeman said. "A full colonel from the Pentagon just met with us to see how it works. He said he realized that they're looking at it from the top down, but we're making it work from grass roots."

There are 27,000,000 veterans in the United States. So far, Task Force Patriot has set up one other chapter in Reno, Nev. When you see this idea fly all over the nation, remember TFP got off the ground right here in Gwinnett County.

For more information, visit www.taskforcepatriot.com.

Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at susanlarson4@yahoo.com.