Standing Strong & Country Proud
Cover Story

Doing something once could be an aberration – a change from the normal routine or what’s expected. If the same thing happens again, it could just be coincidence – the time and place just happened to line up, like so many stars. At three times, there’s a definite pattern in place, a statement of intent, if you will. When the fourth time rolls around, there can be no more question to the action. The belief in a purpose is there and it’s crystal clear. As Country For Our Country (C4C) embarks on its fourth annual event at the Villa di Felicita in Tyler, not a shred of doubt can be found as to why everyone is there, again. Then again, there was never any doubt to begin with.

When the idea for Country for Our Country caught hold of Mary Pennington (owner of Villa di Felicita and C4C founder) like a wild fire four years ago, no one knew it would catch on and spread like it did. But her enthusiasm and commitment can be matched only by the men and women of East Texas who dedicate themselves to our Armed Forces and to protecting our country. So, certainly it’s no surprise that here we are again, planning the concert, the paratroopers entrance, the live and silent auctions, and every part of C4C that represents the commitment to the cause of giving back what we can to the troops from our area.

Talking to Pennington, it can be a little hard to pinpoint the starting inspiration for doing this. The information from past stories, from television interviews or radio spots is all still there. There are military men and women in her family, and she’s seen and spent time with everyone from corporals to generals. Ask anyone about their reasons for involvement in a cause and it’s possible you hear a lot of corporate jargon. Yet with Pennington, you’re much more likely to hear her tell stories about people she’s been able to meet; people who volunteer; entertainers who give back; and, most commonly, soldiers who have dedicated their lives to protecting ours. There’s not a mission statement beyond, “When they come back, we give back,” and C4C prefers it that way. There is an idea at the core of C4C, not a prime directive. There’s not a fundraising goal or a total they hope to meet ... because there is no end goal.

“I didn’t expect it to go past one year! I cannot tell the the number of people calling or the emails or CDs that I get in the mail from people that want to be a part [of C4C.] I’d like to use as much local talent as I can, because local people support local people. We’re finding all kinds of things that help... because this is a long war,” Pennington said. “This is your next generation. You want them to have the same hope as everybody else ... There are all kinds of things that I’ve learned because I just wanted to say thank you for the sacrifices that [the troops] have put themselves out there for us. I’ve said it a hundred times ... If I were to die tomorrow, the one thing I have left to my family is to know where their freedom came from and that it comes with a price. I feel blessed to know that each one of my grandkids, (if they see a soldier across the street or across the airport), they will ask their mommy and daddy if they can stop and go say ‘thank you.’ That just doesn’t happen every day. You have to be able to be appreciative.”

In its fourth year, C4C continues to grow by leaps and bounds, by adding new artists to the concert and more extravagant items to the auctions, to this year’s inclusions of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute (a full-scale Vietnam Memorial Wall) and the recently created Gold Dog Tag Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial. As with any endeavor on the grow, the challenge associated with it grow in tandem. There’s the talent to book, hundreds of volunteers to coordinate, the Friday night dinner and event, all the vendors and of course the media. It would be unfair to say Pennington takes it all in stride, because she really doesn’t – more so, she absorbs it. C4C was born out of an empathy and desire to show support, to help and connect. Pennington and those who give themselves and their time to organize C4C feel it all: the trials and tribulations, and the love and support. They have to feel it. It’s what makes them effective.

“Who would give you your freedom if it wasn’t for our troops?” asked Pennington. “Who would give you your freedom? Who would fight for you if it wasn’t for our troops? Our troops are very important as far as who we need to keep our country free. That’s a big job. I just lay in bed at night thinking ... this year there’s going to be lots of twists, turns and surprises [at C4C], but I think this is going to be the best one we’ve ever had. The paratroopers are coming back, and they’re excited. They didn’t even know what they were coming [to] the first year. Now they’re asking, ‘Can we come back? Can we come back next year?’ Because they saw that it was about them. It was for them … I worked from my first year to last year to get one gentleman who had got a Purple Heart from President Lyndon B. Johnson in the hospital. He just said, ‘No thank you. I don’t talk about it.’ I was just so persistent, and I didn’t go away. Finally, he was at the Villa for a wedding and we talked for a long time. He said, ‘Mary I’ve shared more with you than I’ve ever shared with anyone in my life,’ and I said, ‘Then could you understand that I’m doing this for you? You didn’t get this when you came home. You don’t have to do anything. It’s not about you, it’s for you.’ And last year, he came. He came up to me with tears in his eyes, an older man, and said ‘Thank you' … and 'I want to come back next year and volunteer.’”

While the point of the event isn’t necessarily the show itself (or the attractions), it’s still a pretty great way to get people in the door and build awareness for C4C and its intentions. This year’s headliner, Rodney Atkins, is primed to do just that. Coming off another No. 1 single: “Take A Back Road,” from the album of the same name, Atkins is riding high on music he loves.

“Sonically, it’s pushing the envelope, and they’re songs about life not being perfect. Like ‘Going Through Hell...’ It ain’t always pretty, but it’s real. There are songs about making mistakes, but we’re all in it together and we kind of lift each other up. The single that’s out now, ‘Rock and Roll,’ there are some things that are very different. It’s all part of [finding] what’s going to be relatable and not just what fits into the trend of what else is out there. How do you separate yourself? [How do you] try to consistently do that? It’s a challenge that I love. I love that process when [I’m] making a record.”

Atkins also knows a little something about working for our nation’s Armed Forces, as well. He’s been involved with the Applebee’s “Thank You Movement,” “ThanksUSA” and got back from a USO Tour overseas just earlier this year. Atkins said that working with the Armed Forces has been something he’s felt strongly about for a long time. However, while there are many things he remembers vividly from his trip to Afghanistan, one night stood out to him.

“It was 30 degrees at night with the rain blowing sideways,” Atkins recalled... “You’re waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, and you have to find a latrine... I had to put my boots on, and I went out, and it’s still raining sideways. I saw a kid out there doing chin-ups and working out – in the freezing, sideways rain, outside at 3 a.m. He’d pick up these 150 [pound] to 200 pound sandbags, carry them on his shoulder, walk 50 yards, drop it, pick it back up, walk it back, drop it, pick it up, walk it back, drop it ... I forgot it was raining and freezing and everything else watching him do that. I went up and talked to him and said, ‘What are you doing Scotty?’ He said, ‘Hey Mr. Atkins!’ I said, ‘That’s my dad. I’m Rodney.’ And we started talking. I said, ‘What are you doing this for? Are you on the clock right now? I don’t know how this scheduling stuff works!’ He answered, ‘No. I just set my alarm sometimes in the middle of the night like this to get some PT in now.’ I said, ‘Why now? It’s freezing and rainng out here?’ He said, ‘I try to do it at different times because I never know when I’m going to have to carry one of my brothers or sisters back from the gates of hell.’

“I said, ‘God bless you’ he thanked me. People kept thanking me the whole time I was there, and nobody ever complained. It’s raining and freezing and nobody ever complained. I could go on and on about those guys, but God bless them! Keep them in your prayers.”

There are thousands of stories just like that. Reminders of something more than a giant donation check, or a thermometer registering the amount of money donated. These are the Rosie the Riveter posters of today ... except they aren’t posters. They are men and women you can look in the eye. You can shake their hand, and you can teach your children to walk across the street to tell them thank you.

“Sometimes I get to the point where I struggle and then Paul [Mary’s husband] says, ‘Go look on your iPad or the computer at your soldiers’,” said Mary. “And it all comes back... There’s a picture of a man with a tear on his face. And I remember Marcus Luttrell saying, ‘We all may be different colors, but we all bleed red.’ They all still have the same hurts and sacrifices. If I had to do it over again, I’d still do it. I never expected C4C to be where it is today. But I’m proud ... not for me, but I’m proud of the community because another fundraiser is another fundraiser. But for the community, for the soldiers – this is for them to know that the community cares.

“At the end of the day, if I could see that one soldier that was at the Villa [that] first time I decided to do something for the troops, I would tell him that I kept my promise to him that I would do something for his brother. That’s where I was inspired. That was my promise. I kept it.”

And on Oct. 6, at the Villa di Felicita, we can all help Mary keep that promise.

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