Young Patriot Receives Defense Medal for Public Service

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2008 - A 13-year-old patriot from New Jersey received the Defense Department's top award for public service at a Pentagon ceremony today.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Robert T. Hastings presented Joey Rizzolo, of Paramus, N.J., with the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. Rizzolo was recognized for his contributions in support of the men and women of the armed forces.

The seventh grade student is a participant in America Supports You, a nationwide Defense Department program that showcases Americans' support for men and women in the armed services and their families, Hastings noted. Last year, Rizzolo organized the first Freedom Walk in his community and also wrote a book, titled "20 Steps to a Freedom Walk," that urges students nationwide to stage their own walks. Rizzolo is donating the proceeds from his book to his community's ASY-affiliated project Operation Goody Bag, which sends candy and other gifts to first responders and overseas-deployed servicemembers.

"Joey, what a fabulous resume you've got already," Hastings said during the ceremony, citing Rizzolo's efforts to organize Freedom Walks, as well as his volunteer work with Operation Goody Bag.

Rizzolo also was among the top five youth volunteers in the national Prudential Spirit of Community Awards.

Hastings emphasized that Rizzolo has realized "a fantastic set of accomplishments for a fine American" in support of America's servicemembers.

Rizzolo said the award ceremony came as a shock, noting he thought the purpose of his journey to the Pentagon was to take a tour.

"It totally surprised me," Rizzolo remarked at the ceremony. "It is a great honor to be given the highest award a civilian can get from the Pentagon."

Rizzolo said he believes that supporting America's servicemembers is of paramount importance.

"I just want people to know that they should never forget what happened on Sept. 11," Rizzolo emphasized. "It's important to support the troops because you want them to know that someone's there for them while they're overseas."

Joey's father, Joseph Rizzolo, wore a wide smile as his son received the medal.

"He is just a very passionate kid, and he's got a drive that you wouldn't believe," the senior Rizzolo said. "He feels something for these soldiers ... and everybody who died" during 9/11.

"Today's a great day at the Department of Defense because we get to recognize somebody like Joey Rizzolo, who is making a difference in his community, which makes a difference in the lives of our men and women in the military," said Allison Barber, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for public liaison and internal communications.

Rizzolo's efforts and the work of other young people on behalf of America's servicemembers is inspiring and "good for the long-term success of our country, for patriotism, and for our men and women in the military specifically," Barber said.

Rizzolo was interviewed at the Pentagon by Scholastic Kids Press Corps reporter Maddie Hartke-Weber, whose father, Rick Weber, works with Inside Washington Publishers.

"What stuck out was all of the work Joey had to do and (also) that he wrote a children's book," said Hartke-Weber, a 12-year-old resident of Washington, D.C. Rizzolo's Pentagon and Prudential awards also are impressive, she added.

"This is amazing," said Jane Cosco, director of Operation Goody Bag and Rizzolo's former computer teacher. "We did not expect this event to take place today."

Last month, Operation Goody Bag shipped its 80,000th bag since the program began in 2003, Cosco said.

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