"It's important and it's vital, particularly now," England told the group of their mission to relate their experiences to the American public. "This is the time to be out with the message of the importance of what you do every day, and all those who serve."
The eight enlisted and commissioned Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps members are participating in the Defense Department's "Why We Serve" public outreach program.
The United States has always relied on the courage and selflessness of military members who have fought to preserve America's security, freedoms and way of life since the nation was established, England pointed out.
"What you're doing is hugely important," the deputy defense secretary told the servicemembers as he shook their hands and passed out his personal coins. "And, while you're out there, deliver a great message for America."
The "Why We Serve" program began last fall and was initially the idea of Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The program is conducted in quarterly segments and eight military members, two from each service, are selected to participate, said Air Force Maj. Ann N. Biggers, the program's director.
"We're sending the best of the best from each of the services," Biggers said.
Participants are attached to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs for periods of about 90 days. They travel to communities across the nation to tell their personal stories of military service. Speaking engagements range from veterans organizations to grade schools to business groups.
But first, the servicemembers undergo three days of training consisting of standards of conduct, public speaking, policy and ethics, interview skills, speech preparation and more, Biggers said.
"We know that the American public is hungry to hear about what these young men and women have been doing," Biggers said. "It's important for our speakers, as well, because they are out there serving their country, and they want to be able to tell their stories."
This is the third "Why We Serve" group since the program began, Biggers said. The group members are:
Air Force Capt. Michael J. Frasco, 35, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.;
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Robert P. Jubie, 35, Hill Air Force Base, Utah;
Army Capt. Jessica L. Murphy, 28, Fort Drum, N.Y.;
Army Staff Sgt. Matt Olson, 25, Fort Jackson, S.C.;
Marine 1st Lt. Matthew H. Hilton, 28, Camp Pendleton, Calif.;
Marine Sgt. Paula Payne, 23, Camp Pendleton;
Navy Lt. Junior Grade Katie Hagen, 24, Norfolk, Va.; and
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Virginia Marie Mayo, 29, Camp Pendleton.
The servicemembers have unique experiences they'd like to share with the American public.
Jubie, a military carpenter who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, recalled helping Afghans to rebuild their homes during his stint with a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan. He also cited the death of two of his fellow soldiers in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sept. 8, 2006.
"That really drove home to me to a great desire to continue the mission," Jubie, an Arlington, Wash., native said. "Unfortunately, their lives were ended short, but their legacy lives on through the PRTs."
Frasco, who hails from Albuquerque, N.M., volunteered to be a supply convoy commander during a tour in Afghanistan in 2006, a normally done by an Army officer. He also served as a trainer for the Afghan National Army.
Frasco remembers once working 30 consecutive 16-hour days during his tour in Afghanistan. However, he said, it was worth it to help the Afghans get back onto their feet after enduring years of brutal rule under the Taliban.
"despite all the long hours, despite all the hardships that we'd gone through and despite all the difficult things that we'd faced during our deployment, servicemembers are ready to go back"to assist the Afghans to make them stronger, Frasco said.
Servicemembers perform dangerous duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and other far-flung places to preserve America's security and freedoms and to protect loved ones and other Americans back home, Frasco said.
In Iraq, Mayo organized medical triage and movement of casualties and also participated in more than 15 combat-related missions, including convoys and dismounted patrols. She said she wants the American public to know "there are so many opportunities and positions of leadership" available to women in the military.
"If you can do your job and can hold your own, then, there's nothing that can stop you," Mayo, a New Port Richey, Fla., native, noted.
Murphy, a Milwaukee native and military police officer, said she and her soldiers worked closely with local residents during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We interacted with the community a lot in both countries. It was very rewarding. I've seen how we can affect what is happening on the ground and help people have a better life,"Murphy said.
"I know the news kind of portrays the sensational side" of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Olson, who hails from Grantsville, Wis. "I'm kind of hoping to get the whole story out there, the good news stuff."Having served two tours in Iraq, Olson recalled participating in humanitarian missions to provide supplies for Iraqi school children.
"Seeing those children's faces was rewarding," the wheeled-vehicle mechanic and noncommissioned officer said.
Hagen, who calls Slidell, La., home, recalled performing anti-pirate missions off the coast of Somalia while deployed on a Navy destroyer in the Arabian Gulf in 2005-2006.
"It's something that I'd never expected. I didn't even know until I got there that there actually were still pirates out there," Hagen said. "It was a pretty unique experience."
Hilton, an intelligence officer who's slated to be the ceremonial ringmaster for an April 4 evening performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in his native Fairfax, Va., said he'd share his positive experiences with the Iraqi people during his two tours in Iraq.
"The Iraqi people are great people," said Hilton, who'd served as an advisor to the 7th Iraqi Army Division. "They're very hospitable people, and I think the American people don't get a chance to see the warm, inviting culture that they have, that I was able to experience."
"I think the American people don't get enough (news) about the good things that are happening in Iraq,"Payne, a communications noncommissioned officer, said, because of the preponderance of stories that publicize the negative. For example, the Grandville, Mich., native said, it was a routine occurrence to see Iraqi children joyfully accepting educational books and candy from U.S. soldiers and Marines.
"There are wonderful things that are happening over there, and those are the things that need to be covered more,"said Payne, served two tours in Iraq, in 2005 and 2006.
For general questions about the "Why We Serve" program, call Maj. Ann Biggers at (703) 695-3845.