Women's club sends message to troops
Signed banner unveiled at Ga. Capitol

ATLANTA - When members of the Buford Lanier Woman's Club set out to show support to soldiers in Iraq, they never dreamed they would make history.

This week, a banner created by the club and signed by dozens of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers was unveiled in a Georgia Capitol office building.

"It's pretty amazing to see something I put in my rucksack and carried around with me to be up on a wall, to be a part of history," said Col. Mark Valeri, whose mother, Rita, is a member of the club.

Valeri was deployed to Iraq in May 2005, about the time the club got the idea.

"When you got there, you kind of felt alone," he said. "It was nice to see people back in the states doing something to remember us."

Originally, the banner was intended to be a message from home to the soldiers. Valeri planned to hang it in the chow hall.

But when the banner arrived, he knew it had a different destiny. He began asking members of his unit to sign the placard.

Assigned to train members of the Iraqi military, Valeri later passed the pen to some of the Iraqis.

"When we asked them to sign the banner, they felt they were in a brotherhood with us," he said. "It was good. It brought us closer to home, and it also gave us something to do."

The banner traveled to about a dozen Iraqi cities and villages, filling up with about 100 signatures, some from prominent generals. It survived an improvised explosive device attack and became a beacon for the military.

"We kind of adopted the banner as a team member."

Valeri, who returned from Iraq in August 2006 and is now stationed in Maryland, said this week's ceremony to post the banner in the Sloppy Floyd Building in Atlanta brought back a lot of emotions and memories from his time in the desert.

"Seeing all the names reminded you of each individual person," he said. "It was just amazing to see how a concept of the Buford Woman's Club has turned full circle. ... When I saw it hung up there with other mementoes from World War I and World War II, I thought, we made some history here."

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, commended the club for its unique idea. The group also donated prepaid phone cards, CDs, DVDs and portable DVD players to soldiers.

"The Buford Lanier Woman's Club has supported our troops for years," Unterman said. "These women have helped raise the morale of our service men and women. I'm honored they invited me to share in this experience. Our troops need all the support from home they can get."

For club president Sandra Huff, the banner was a special gift, since her son Gary, an Air Force reservist, was deployed to Iraq three times. In addition to Rita Valeri, a third club member, Lynn Clark, also had a son sent to war-torn country.

"It was such an emotional time, and it still is to think our boys went over there and came back safe," Huff said, adding that she was glad to share the tribute with the entire state. "It touched me very personally."