JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- When John Heinzinger was young, he wanted to stay as far away from the military as possible.

He was against the Vietnam War, and vocally so. He went to protests. And for a time he thought he'd never see eye to eye with anyone in the military.

Now a Parks and Recreation Commissioner for the city of University Place, Heinzinger is seeing a different side of Soldiers -- and he's not the only one. Units from all over Joint Base Lewis-McChord took part in community service projects for Make a Difference Day on Oct. 22.

"It gives me a chance to be with them and see they're just like me, they're just in the military," Heinzinger said.

The event, which takes place on the fourth Saturday in October, was started by USA Weekend to promote volunteer work in the United States, and the United States Army was no exception.

There are plenty of benefits to giving back to the community, and they aren't all for the civilian population. First Lieutenant Shannon Johnson, project manager of the 42nd Military Police Brigade's effort to restore trails at Fisher Marsh Park in Steilacoom, has volunteered with the unit there for years. It gives her a sense of connection to the world off base.

"It really makes me feel like we belong. They give us a nice basis for feeling at home when we're not," she said.

Her efforts really are making a difference, though. Johnson and about 30 other volunteers from the brigade spent the morning laying mulch on about two miles worth of trails, digging a culvert to prevent flooding and installing new trail markers in the park.

"The response from the citizens that use these trails was phenomenal," Steilacoom Public Works park supervisor Richard Creeger said.

He's worked with Soldiers as part of the community connector program for 10 years, and he says they often provide the manpower to accomplish tasks that wouldn't get done any other way.

The day wasn't just about physical labor, though. Volunteers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division made brunch for guests at Fisher House on base. The temporary residents there come from all over to be near loved ones at Madigan Army Medical Center.

"When they come here they're so far from home they don't get a chance to get a home cooked meal," Sgt. Anquone Conyer said as he made French toast and eggs to order in the kitchen.
Conyer brought his 9-year-old daughter, Asuka, to help out in the kitchen with about seven Soldier volunteers. For some, breakfast made a big difference in their day.

"It gives me a sense of home," said Stassa Lupton, who came from Camus, Wash., to be near her son who was wounded in Afghanistan.

She said it helped to have someone take care of her while she was so focused on taking care of her son. But she also sees the benefits of sending Soldiers into the community to work alongside civilians.

"It lets them see the real side of Soldiers, the human side," she said.

For Heinzinger, who describes himself as anti-war but pro military, the day spent clearing brush and laying groundwork for a future park with 20 Soldiers from the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade at Leach Creek Property in University Place did just that.

"I'm impressed with their work ethic and their courtesy and their overall professionalism," he said.
Many of the Soldiers said they volunteered as a way to say thanks to communities that are so supportive of what they do.

"It always amazed me the amount of care packages and stuff we get from people we have never met," Capt. John Hlavaty, 16th CAB, said.

But for Heinzinger, the event was a chance for him to say thank you to a group of people most civilians only see on the news.

"It gives me a chance to close the gap," he said.

Marisa Petrich: