By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar has seen the image on a number of occasions over his distinguished military career.
On Tuesday, flanked by soldiers in fatigues, the commander of the Wisconsin National Guard painted a picture of a young service member heading off to war.
“Just imagine, you’re 18, 17 years old and you’ve made a big commitment to serve your country,” Dunbar told a packed crowd of reporters at the Capitol.
“You head overseas to some place you’ve never been before, maybe never even heard before. And you show up and no matter how tough you are there’s a little part inside of you that misses home.
“Imagine the parents when they get that phone call and it says, ‘Mom, Dad, it’s me. I’m OK.’”
Dunbar joined Gov. Scott Walker and others at the Capitol to promote Cell Phones for Soldiers, a program which collects and recycles old cell phones into pre-paid calling cards for men and women serving overseas.
“It goes a long way to support this military and support this nation,” Dunbar said.
Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, siblings from Norwell, Mass., launched the program in 2004 when they were 12 and 13, respectively. Robbie Bergquist said he and his sister were inspired by a story they heard about a returning veteran with an $8,000 cell phone bill awaiting him at home. They raised money with car washes and bake sales to help the veteran pay off the bill.
“From there, we decided that we would start an organization, so that no soldier would have to pay for a phone call home ever again,” Robbie Bergquist said, now 20 and a student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He was in attendance at the Madison press conference.
Bergquist said almost $9 million and 150 million minutes have been raised for overseas troops through the program.
“It meant the world,” said Adam Roehl, technical sergeant in the 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard, who served in Iraq. “I mean, you get to talk to your family back home. It’s important knowing that they feel that your safe while deployed overseas. It brings a big peace of mind.”
Walker said he hopes Wisconsin can help expand that opportunity to more soldiers.
In May, Walker announced that state employees and their families donated more than 1,500 used cell phones. On Tuesday, he urged Wisconsinites to donate prepaid calling cards or used cell phones to the program as part of the Year of the Veteran initiative Walker announced in late February.
“This isn’t just about a phone connection. This is really about keeping a connection to home, keeping a connection that keeps up the morale of our men and women in uniform,” Walker said.
That state has joined forces with AT&T for the cell phone drive. AT&T got behind the Bergquists’ cause in 2007, donating more than 600,000 prepaid calling cards to American armed forces.
Scott VanderSanden, president of AT&T Wisconsin, announced the company would be donating 600 AT&T calling cards to Wisconsin National Guard and the Wisconsin reserve unit “to help our nation’s heroes stay in touch with their families.”
Wisconsinites may donate used cell phones at any Wisconsin AT&T store , find drop-off locations at the Cell Phones for Soldiers website, mail in old cell phones with a free shipping label, or unload them at drop boxes at the visitor’s desk in the Capitol rotunda.
Bergquist also announced a new initiative, Helping Heroes Home that seeks to provide veterans with financial assistance. AT&T will donate $2, up to $50,000 for the cause, every time an individual watches this video.