News of the respite program, which will welcome over 160 soldiers to the region for what the chamber hopes will be an all-expenses paid and custom-tailored weekend, came just days before the official end of U.S. involvement in the Iraq War, which was marked with a flag lowering ceremony on Thursday, December 15. The war in Afghanistan is, of course, still
"There's no doubt that the events of 9/11 will forever live in our memories," said Denise Romeo, vice president for member services with the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. "In honor of the 10-year anniversary of this tragedy, the chamber is coordinating this second respite program. In 2002, the community generously took care of the vast majority of expenses for participating first responders, and we hope to give these soldiers, who have given so much, a similar experience."
Participating soldiers are expected to visit the area between February 1 and April 30 of next year, and are encouraged to bring family members with them to enjoy their visit. In total, over 350 individuals are expected to visit the region through the respite program.
"I will be reaching out to each individual family to see who will be joining them," said Romeo. "Our hope is that we can individually chat with each one to find out what it is that they enjoy doing together and then set that up for them."
Although Romeo admits that speaking with each participant and coordinating their visits will be a fairly large undertaking, the hope is to craft a tailor-fit experience that speaks directly to every soldier and family coming to the region.
"If they like to ski, we hope to set up an opportunity for them to go to one of our local ski areas free of charge. If they like museums, we're hopping to offer them passes. If they are bringing children and like ice skating, we want to set that opportunity up for them directly," said Romeo.
Many local hotels have stepped up to take part in the program, offering free or greatly reduced rates to National Guard members and their families. Participating hotels include the Saratoga Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, the Residence Inn of Saratoga, Holiday Inn Express Clifton Park, Longfellows, The Saratoga Hilton, The Inn at Saratoga, the Adirondack Inn, Roosevelt Inn and Suites, Holiday Inn of Saratoga, Saratoga Arms, Hampton Inn of Clifton Park, Hampton Inn of Saratoga, and Hyatt Place in Malta.
"We're also going to be able to provide them with coupons for their meals when they're here," said Romeo. "Our hope is to offer this experience to them completely free of charge."
One family set to visit the region early next year will be Lou and Amy Maniscalco, who reside in Staten Island, New York. Lou, a Staff Sergeant with the 22 Infantry Division who has served close to 20 years with the National Guard, was deployed twice to Iraq - once from 2004 - 2005, and again from 2008 - 2009.
"This is a wonderful opportunity that people have afforded us, and we're really looking forward to going," said Lou. "We're looking forward to having a chance to get away and to have a couple of quiet, relaxing evenings."
Lou's wife, Amy, echoed her husband's sentiments.
"It will be really nice to be able to get away together and spend some quality time, without any of the distractions from home," she said.
Speaking at Monday's press conference, Col. Jim Pabis, an Iraq War veteran and former Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce board member, thanked the chamber and Saratoga County for offering the respite program to the 8,000 National Guard members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan over the last 10 years.
"As a guard member, I'd like to personally give my sincerest thank you to the chamber team, to the Convention and Tourism Bureau team, to participating businesses and organizations, and a sincere thank you to the community of Saratoga," said Col. Pabis. "Saratoga essentially rolled out the red carpet for these folks through this program."
Col. Pabis also noted that, along with coinciding with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and Saratoga's first respite program, the event will also mark the 375th birthday of the National Guard.
"Knowing the sacrifices these families make - people say every day that they understand, but I don't know that we can ever fully understand," said Romeo. "Families are torn apart, servicemen are stationed [far away], and both they and their families are asked to sacrifice so much. So for us and for this community, we just want to say thank you and to let them know that we care. We try to understand some of the sacrifices that they've made, but this is our small way of saying that we appreciate what they do."
Romeo and the chamber are currently seeking the support of local businesses and individuals as they strive to provide an all-expenses paid visit for these servicemen and women.
"We've had folks contact us who will be donating monetarily. We will also be looking at restaurants and retailers who will offer gift certificates or discounts, 20 percent coupons or that sort of thing," said Romeo.