Marian Chirichella never thought she would see the inside of the Oval Office, even after the White House called to inform her that President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush wanted to meet with her.
"We were told that it would be in the Lincoln Room, but while we were waiting they came and said, 'no we have a bigger surprise for you, you are going to be meeting with the President in the Oval Office,'" said Chirichella, President of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 in McLean. "It was just like being in your friend's living room — it was that congenial and that friendly, and yet you knew it was the President and Mrs. Bush."
On March 10, the President and Mrs. Bush invited the leaders of 15 organizations that have worked to support the country's active military and their families to the White House and officially thanked them for their efforts. Chirichella was one of those 15 leaders, as a result of her work with the Angels of Mercy program.
She and her husband, Legionnaire Jay Edwards, formed the Angels of Mercy program after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2003 and seeing how little support was available. The Angels of Mercy program seeks to raise awareness of the needs of the wounded military and to garner community support for them while improving their quality of life.
Chirichella and Edwards volunteer at Walter Reed once a week. They visit with patients, bring them civilian clothing and personal comfort items, provide them with food staples and home cooked meals, and host special events such as Super Bowl parties, baby showers and children's birthday parties.
"We have become the face of America at Walter Reed, expressing the gratitude all Americans feel for what these brave young men and women have given our country," said Chirichella.
The Angels of Mercy program has also run a holiday gift-giving effort for the last three years. More than 1,000 holiday gifts were purchased, wrapped and personally delivered to recovering soldiers and their children.
Chirichella said that President Bush and Laura Bush met with her and the other group founders for a full hour in the Oval Office.
"He was extremely friendly and so was Mrs. Bush," said Chirichella. "He shared some of this thoughts with us... and it was just magnificent. I can't describe the emotion tied to it. I came home and I was just exhausted."
Chirichella said that President Bush commended the group for taking it upon themselves to help.
"He said 'you all didn't wait to be asked to help, you identified a need and jumped in and met it,'" said Chirichella.
After the meeting with the President, members of the 15 groups held a roundtable meeting to brainstorm ideas. Allison Barber, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, expressed her thanks to those present. Barber created the Department of Defense "America Supports You" program, which includes Angels of Mercy.
"You guys are the heart and soul of America Supports You," said Barber. "You've been supporting the troops long before there was ever an America Supports You program. We're humbled by your work."
Dorothy Bigger, a friend of Chirichella and Edwards, and the former president of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 270 in McLean, said she was pleased that Chirichella's efforts were recognized.
"She is an angel of mercy," said Bigger. "That's what she's called by all the men at Walter Reed, and it's not just there. It just comes out of her in everything she does. You can tell when you talk to her what a gentle person she is, and I think for the President to recognize what she has done is remarkable."