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'Faces of Freedom' gaining ground

ALBANY, Ga. -- A retired Army colonel recently made his way through Albany as part of an effort to spread the word about a program he has established that reaches out to veterans wounded in action.

Col. Mike Steele, director of "Faces of Freedom," said the genesis of the program came about in spring 2009. Since then, he has been working to develop the Faces of Freedom concept by educating citizens throughout Georgia, particularly elected officials, on the organization -- which aims to assist wounded veterans with financial, spiritual or medical needs.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle so far, Steele said, has been trying to track the veterans down.

"Our difficulty has been finding these guys," he said. "We had this notion that these guys would connect and find a network. Nothing could be further from the truth."

The goal, the retired colonel and former University of Georgia football player said, is to establish the long-term relationship necessary to make a lasting impact.

"We will still do fun things, but we are using it more as a door-opener," Steele said. "The truth is that these guys have issues, and they are not going to open up to strangers.

"We want to open that network."

Steele said that efforts are currently being made to establish a connection with military liaisons at institutions within the University System of Georgia to help build the resources together.

Eventually, the hope is that Faces of Freedom will turn into a mentorship program between older and younger veterans.

"We want to develop them as individuals, but also as mentors," Steele said. "....We can't mass produce results; we are doing this one-on-one.

"The initial phase is past. Every county and congressional district has a number of wounded veterans. We have asked each of the elected officials to provide the names of one or two guys from their district. We are spreading the word."

At least one Albany business, Southern Ag Carriers, is set to back Faces of Freedom. Hugh Nall, president and chief operating officer of the company, said he has noticed how connections have been made amongst co-workers there who have seen military action.

"I can only imagine what these guys have been through," Nall said.

Nall went as far at to say that Faces of Freedom might potentially become Southern Ag's main avenue of gift giving.

"We were looking for something to support veterans that was unique, because we would like to have the opportunity to give back," he said. "We will (support them) financially and work on getting them anything they need.

"We will definitely be involved."

Over the last several months, a network of doctors, certified public accountants as well as others from various professions have come on board to help provide assistance to the veterans in any way needed -- whether it be just a tweak on a prosthetic.

"Our biggest supporters have been Vietnam guys, because they don't want to let it happen again (to younger generations)," Steele said.

"... I have never met anyone who has been unchanged from the experience. Some are naturally more resilient; what impacts one person in a profound way may not impact someone as much...we are not here to sympathize, but to empathize."

Steele said the organization previously had website that eventually had to be taken down, but that a new one was expected to be operation in the next four to six weeks for those interested in getting connected to the program.