It was a culmination of events which led Mona Willson, LaFayette, to search for ways to help America’s troops abroad, she said. “That day came four years ago at a Memorial Day ceremony while I was holding my son, and the 21-Gun Salute had sounded, and I heard a woman behind me burst into tears,” Willson said. “Whatever it was, it was a sign to me that I needed to take action, and when I went home, that is what I did.” Willson became a volunteer for the national organization, Adopt a US Soldier, in 2008. Since then, she has quickly climbed the ranks, first to ambassador, and now as chief director of ambassadors. However, her mission in supporting the troops has been a lifelong journey.
Willson developed an admiration for the Armed Forces at a very early age. She grew up a short distance from her favorite city—the nation’s capital—in Anne Arundel County, Md. The movies she watched, the toys she played with and the day trips she took with her family were always centered around military themes. Her favorite war film today is “Flags of Our Fathers,” a 2006 co-produced film by Clint Eastwood. “I like to watch movies that are based on actual people and events,” she said. “It creates a better understanding of the situation and how someone ends up where they do along life’s path.”
Her parents and grandmother played central roles in the appreciation she developed toward U.S. service men and women. During her childhood, they would spend countless hours at Fort McHenry and summer weekends on top of Federal Hill. On one occasion, Willson and her dad paid a visit to the Vietnam Wall Memorial. Her father was too young to fight in Vietnam, but he knew some older boys who were drafted; boys who never came home. By the time he was old enough to join the military, he was refused because he was color blind and could barely see without his glasses.
“I saw my father looking through the names and watched him run his fingers over them. I had never seen my father in that light before. He knew some of those boys listed on the wall and he wanted to go over, too, but he couldn’t. I understood at that moment why he was so interested and appreciative of our Armed Forces, and why he made it his personal mission to make sure that I was educated about our military,” Willson said. “Whenever I am [in D.C.], I am flooded with emotion and so many memories.”
As a young adult, Willson and her future husband—the son of a Vietnam Marine—traveled throughout the country, and settled as far north as Alaska. There, she developed an even deeper respect for military families. She worked at a GNC store located on the Elmendorf Airforce Base, just outside of Anchorage. She enjoyed getting to know these families, and at the same time empathized with their lifestyle—the stress of frequent relocations, deployments and living in the moment, never knowing when their loved ones would have to leave again. “My heart really went out to the children,” said Willson, who is finishing up a degree in early education and who now works with Head Start, a program for preschool-aged children.
After their heartwarming adventure in icy Alaska, the young explorers decided to settle in Central New York, where they became extremely proud first-time parents. “Becoming a mother was a true turning point in my life as it is with most mothers, and the amount of reflection that took place was immense,” Willson said. “Not only did I realize that my own son could one day be what one of my adopted Marines had called himself and his unit ‘your sons of liberty,’ but I realized that the passion I had for our military and American history was pointing to a destiny of working with our troops.”
What most attracted Willson to the Adopt a US Soldier program was its personal, genuine feel. While the program encourages civilians to send letters and care packages to troops abroad, it’s an appeal that’s galaxies away from a commercial perspective. Willson said it emphasizes how significant it is for a soldier to receive not just an email or Facebook post, but a hand-written letter.
“Having a tangible piece of home from another American that cares; someone who does not expect anything in return but just wants this soldier to know that he is valued and that people back home, total strangers, are willing to take the time from their day to sit down and write them a letter.”
Willson described a time when she received a hand-written letter back from a soldier with dirty fingerprints where he had sealed the envelope. “We love you” was written on the back.
“Talk about crying,” she said. “[It’s a] priceless experience. A real human experience that connects individuals thousands and thousands of miles away. Letters have been a way of communication for as long as the written word [has been around] and especially during times of war. To be a piece of that history, and a piece of someone’s life who is facing one of the most dangerous tasks of his life, is irreplaceable.”
Willson said her first adopted soldier was so grateful and genuine toward her, that he “truly motivated me to go with what was in my heart—to let Americans know that our service men and women need to know that we support them. They need to know that we are standing behind them here at home, and that when they come back, they will still have our support, that we will advocate for them to make sure that they are taken care of and appreciated.” Soldiers and marines have expressed their gratitude on several occasions, Willson said. Some sign up for the program each time they deploy because they know they can depend on the program and its volunteers to take care of them.
“I always come around full circle, back to the question that if it was my son laying his life on the line for his country’s honor and protection—how would I want our citizens to treat and respond to him?” she said. Her upbringing also fostered a sense of empathy toward those affected by the Vietnam War.
“We can never have a repeat of what happened to our troops when they came home from Vietnam. We have to remember that these men [and women] are human, they bleed the same as we do and they hurt the same as well.”
Colorado native and agency founder Ann Johnson was inspired to create Adopt a US Soldier during her son’s first deployment to Iraq in 2004-05. Friends, co-workers and church members collected and donated items from food, DVDs and books to three microwaves and an Xbox, which he shared with the rest of his unit. Thank you letters came pouring in, and when an emotional Johnson told a friend about the outpouring of appreciation, he alerted the media. Johnson received 600 emails of support and soon had her first three volunteers: an administrative clerk, a web designer and a freelance writer.
Since then, the seven-year-old organization has more than 800,000 supporters from 129 countries and 57 volunteers. And Willson’s enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed. After two years as an active volunteer and program ambassador, Johnson asked LaFayette resident Mona Willson to become the chief director of ambassadors, which constitutes being the go-to person for ambassadors throughout the nation and internationally, addressing concerns and generating ideas for events, presentations and contacts. She also serves as a member of the executive board.
Willson is a role model to other ambassadors by continuing the responsibilities she took on when she first started volunteering. “I do not believe that you can lead others if you are not practicing what you preach,” she said. “So I still attend annual events and seek new opportunities to be out in the community and directly advocate for the organization, to gain support for our troops, and to obtain more soldiers and marines to be adopted. And of course, I still have multiple soldiers, marines, or their units/platoons, that I personally adopt.”
On average, about 20 to 50 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and women sign up every day to be part of the program. Service members sign up because they’ve heard it’s a way to help them get through lonely times or because they are looking for some extra encouragement for themselves or their friends. There are two ways for civilians to volunteer their time. One is by adopting one soldier for the duration of their tour of duty. The other is to sign up for “Project Frontlines,” where an individual, family or group can send over a single batch of letters, cards and care packages.
Visit www.adoptaussoldier.org to find out how you can participate in its programs.
By Tami S. Scott