Employees stay in touch despite war

Wednesday, July 13, 2005 at 1:00am

While commanding a squadron in Iraq, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Jeffrey Holmes keeps in constant touch with his large, extended family - approximately 83 employees of Hart Freeland Roberts Inc. in Brentwood.

A former company president and Guard reservist, Holmes left the architectural and engineering firm in March 2004 to report to active duty at an operating base in the northern Diyala Province, where he commands the Third Squadron of the 278th Regimental Combat Team.

Holmes' strong ties with colleagues back home go far beyond the exchange of e-mails and letters. Working across the seas, Holmes and his company have coordinated the delivery of hundreds of donated items to Iraq to make life easier for both troops and village children.

"We're a company, but it's just a big family," said the current company president, Rodney Wilson. "In our minds, Jeff is still as much a part of our company as he was before he left."

Hart Freeland Roberts' (HFR) efforts have not gone unnoticed. The Tennessee National Guard last month awarded HFR the Freedom Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the Guard to civilian organizations.

Of the seven award winners Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett has recognized the past couple of years since the program began, HFR illustrates the power of a small company to make a big impact, said Maj. Marty Lyles, a Guard deputy chief of staff for personnel. His wife, Marianne, is a human resources administrator for HFR.

"It's really been unprecedented," Lyles said. "I have been in the Guard for 20 years myself. I've never seen the attitude of everybody in the company being as strongly supportive of the military. I mean, it's almost like they're obsessed with it. It's really neat to see."

HFR prides itself on a patriotic bent. For the past four years, employees have annually taken up donations for the "Stand Down" program of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Jack Potter, one of the firm's partners, served in Desert Storm and now serves in the Individual Ready Reserves, as do several HFR employees.

"And then there's Jeff," Wilson said. "If there were ever a patriot that functioned in the normal working world, Jeff is the role model - because he's an American and believes in it, and it's contagious just being around him."

A 20-year Guard reservist, Holmes is a stockholder and senior vice president of HFR. While on military leave in Iraq, Holmes has informed his company in subtle ways that his soldiers and the neighboring Iraqi children could use a few things.

"He doesn't give us a shopping list, he's more of a hint-dropper," Wilson said.

The company employees have responded by organizing drives to provide Iraqi children with Beanie Baby toys and enough school supplies for as many as 100 Iraqi students through "Operations Hands and Feet."

For servicemen, the company has collected and assembled weekly care packages of food, books and DVDs, and shipped them at company expense. It also has donated about 2,100 long-distance calling minutes for wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. At a fund-raising banquet, HFR raised $4,475 toward providing Internet access for troops.

Individual HFR employees have also taken up the cause.

Employee and Cubmaster Jeff Louk had his Cub Scout Pack 210 at St. Edward Catholic Church send personal letters to every soldier in the Third Squadron expressing their appreciation. Cindy Gilliam, wife of HFR stockholder Jim Gilliam, organized the collection of 350 pounds of food and personal supplies for soldiers at her daughter's school, Walnut Grove Elementary.

As for Holmes, the staff sent him off to war with a digital camera, bought him a sturdy laptop computer, and has sent him various morale boosters. Wilson sent him tapes of NASCAR races and University of Tennessee football games.

When Holmes' birthday came around in May, the staff staged a mock party for him at home, videotaped the event, and sent the tape, along with a box of gifts, decorations and a large blow-up cake, to one of Holmes' subordinates. His squadron then broke open the box and a staged a surprise birthday for him.

Wilson said people think of Holmes not only as a company executive, but also a friend. Keeping in touch gives the employees a way to be involved.

"It's our connection to what's going on, and it makes it real, where it's not just something in the paper," Wilson said. "So we get a lot of information back from Jeff, feedback as to what's going on and how he's doing and how the people around him are doing."

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