By Samantha L. Quigley / American Forces Press ServiceApril 6, 2007
FAIRFAX, Va., April 5, 2007 - More than 150 servicemembers and their families spent last night enjoying circus antics for free during Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus' Military Appreciation Night.
Marines from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., and soldiers from Fort Belvoir, Va., got free tickets to the show at George Mason University's Patriot Center.
Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, said honoring the troops is something that happens at every Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus.
"It's our way of giving back to the men and women in uniform and their families who've given so much to this country," he said. "We're happy to have them here, and to give them this opportunity to enjoy the show."
Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is a corporate team member of the Defense Department's America Supports You, which highlights the ways Americans and the corporate sector are supporting the nation's military.
"We've been working with the America Supports You program for the past two years, and it's not just at this circus, it's with all our traveling units," he said. "The America Supports You message is given at the beginning of every show, and in addition to that we've been working with military installations in areas we travel across the country and help families keep in touch with loved ones."
April is the Month of the Military Child, and military families were the focus of this Military Appreciation Night.
Army Maj. Kevin Golinghorst, stationed with his family on Fort Belvoir, said he was very glad for the chance to take his family to the circus.
"I really appreciate being able to bring my family," the self-described "big kid" said. "It's really awesome to think that they want the kids that may not get a chance to come and see this to get a free chance.
"A lot of families aren't getting the chance to do this right now, so it makes us extra happy to be together and do this," he added.
Kathleen Rew, wife of a Marine, said she appreciated Ringling's gesture, which allowed her children to attend the show.
"It's nice to know people appreciate what (their father) does, what my husband does and the amount of time that they spend away from us," Rew said.
She and her daughters, Jaime and Kaysie, had been to smaller circuses, but not "the big one." Jaime, 11, was most excited about the popcorn and the animals, which she was expecting to perform some amazing tricks.
For Marine 1st Lt. Matthew Hilton, the evening, which started with an official welcome from Karen the elephant sporting her enormous America Supports You dog tag, was especially meaningful. Not only did he serve as the honorary ringmaster, his appearance was a return to his alma mater, George Mason University.
"It's kind of nice to see some familiar faces," he said, adding that he was excited about his role in the evening's festivities. "I always wanted to be ... a clown. (It's) pretty cool, but a little nerve-wracking at the same time."
Hilton, a 2004 George Mason graduate, was chosen as ringmaster for his connection to the university. He is part of the Defense Department's "Why We Serve" speakers group, which includes soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have recently returned from deployments in the Middle East. The speakers fan out across the country to tell their story directly to the American people.
He said the circus's donation of tickets to military families was a great idea, and something they needed.
"Servicemembers sacrifice a lot but the families do as well," Hilton said. "It's a just a nice getaway for the parents and the kids to actually enjoy something fun."
As the performance began, Hilton stepped into the spotlight and thanked the circus and the crowd for their support of him fellow servicemembers.
"I'd also like to thank the Defense Department's America Supports You (program and) ... Ringling Brothers for giving me this opportunity to be up there today and represent the servicemembers."
And to thunderous applause, Hilton said the magic words to get the circus under way: "Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth