The Ingenious Meaning Behind Red Balls On Power Lines – And How They’ve Saved Countless Lives

You can’t miss them when you look up. Those bright red, orange and white spheres hang from the power lines overhead like huge Christmas baubles. You can see that they’re spaced perfectly apart, too. But while that neat pattern is obviously by design, the balls themselves aren’t just there for show. They have a purpose, and a rather ingenious one to boot.

When these spheres started appearing is up for debate. Some say that the red balls began popping up in both Florida and Arkansas in the 1950s. Others, by contrast, claim that they came to Arkansas first – and not until the 1970s. Thankfully, you don’t have to pick a side of this rather unexciting argument… And in any case, the balls are definitely all across the country now.

You may occasionally have to squint to spot the spheres, however, as they don’t appear to be all that big. Not true! Remember that some are hundreds of feet in the air, so what you see on the ground isn’t a representation of their true size. Some of the larger varieties actually measure up at a minimum of 36 inches in diameter.

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On the other hand, the balls that hang a bit closer to the ground – say, under 50 feet above where you stand – may be only 20 inches in size. These are distributed a bit less generously than their more sizable counterparts. Smaller spheres are allowed to be a mere 30 feet apart, while the bigger ones are separated by about 200 feet.

Clearly, this is all part of a well-regulated system. So, what purpose do these brightly colored, perfectly sized and evenly spaced balls have to say to passersby? If you don’t yet know, there’s a good chance that you’re not in the industry – and it may not be the reason you’re thinking of, either.

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We’ll give you a clue, though: it’s something to do with what those power lines transport. Yes, electricity! And being able to light up our cities and homes is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. It took until 1882 for engineers Oskar von Miller and Marcel Deprez to send electricity over a long distance. The pair relied on overhead wires that would normally transmit telegraphs, using these to pass a 2.5-kilowatt current over a 35-mile stretch. That may not sound far, but it was revolutionary at the time.

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Before this landmark moment, a power plant could only serve the towns and cities nearby. That meant electricity had just a short journey from its point of creation to the businesses and residences that needed it. But as time went on, utility companies moved into larger, more remote facilities. The only issue? They were too far away from their customers now.

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To fix this problem, power companies had to come up with a brand-new way to efficiently transport electricity from its point of creation all the way to consumers. This was no easy task. And any wasted power was money lost for these businesses, so coming up with the right conduction system was super-important. Enter the power line.

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Now, high-voltage electricity is easily transported from plants to the areas where we live and work. But you may be surprised to hear that the power lines up above aren’t insulated. Why is that? Well, it’s been deemed a waste of money, as few folks ever get close enough to them. Any underground lines will be insulated, mind you, to protect people in the vicinity.

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Accidents do happen with power lines – mostly electrocutions. These typically occur when a construction worker or their equipment touches the cable while also being in contact with the ground. This position creates a sort of conductor, allowing the power to travel from the live wire through the person and into the earth.

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But this also explains why birds can sit on power lines without any problems. Electricity won’t leave the lines unless it has a pathway into the ground, meaning the winged creatures can perch on the wire without feeling the deadly surge. They do have problems if they brush against two wires at once, however, or if they simultaneously come up against both a line and the wooden poles that hold it up.

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Fortunately, power companies have looked after our feathered friends, bumping up the distance between lines so that birds won’t hit two wires at once when they sit down. So, crows, pigeons and others of their kind are perfectly safe to while away some time up there, as you’ve certainly seen them do.

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But we don’t just spot birds on power lines. Sometimes – especially in cities – we notice old shoes hanging up there, too. People tie the laces of two sneakers together then launch them up toward the lines. And a good throw will usually hook the shoelaces over the wire, leaving them dangling for everyone in the neighborhood to see. Often you’ll count hundreds of pairs hanging up together on just one section. This phenomenon looks pretty cool, sure, but while looking up at a power line have you ever really stopped to think about just why those kicks are all up there? Actually, there’s an interesting reason for it – several, in fact.

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We also have a stat that will shock you. Between 2008 and 2015, the city of Chicago was asked to remove at least 6,000 pairs of shoes from power lines, according to the radio station WBEZ. But it’s not an issue exclusive to the Windy City. In fact, you’ll see sneakers dangling overhead in places across the globe. And it’s a phenomenon with many possible explanations.

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Some have linked sneakers on power lines to urban crime – especially clashes related to gangs. A former gang member named Patrick Starr confirmed this to WBEZ in 2015. Apparently, he and his buddies would mark their territory with overhead footwear. In other cities, crews have used shoes to signal where rivals have died or where their own have fallen victim to violence.

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Perhaps you’ve heard, though, that a hanging shoe represents a spot where people sell drugs. Well, Chicago locals have refuted this notion. And there are the stories of people whose friends pranked them or tossed their sneakers as payback for a lost bet. There’s no single reason, then, why shoes end up overhead.

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But while sneakers aren’t added to electrical cables by city officials, there are a few baubles that do get the official stamp of approval. And unlike dangling tennis shoes, such state-approved items have a clear purpose and meaning for those who know how to interpret them.

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Perhaps you’ve gazed at a transformer and the high-voltage lines that jut from it – only to notice some disc-like objects around the electric cables. Regardless of their color, these are probably insulators to prevent the live wires from touching anything that could cause a shock.

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You see, if the wires run next to or into a transformer, they have a direct pathway to the ground. And because most transformers are metal, they can conduct electricity downwards – which power companies naturally don’t want. So, insulators are placed around the lines to separate them from a transformer’s edge.

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Insulator disks can also protect power plant transformers from storms and electrical surges. You may even have seen power lines being hit by lightning and wondered about the impact. Well, thankfully, you don’t have to worry about this if there are insulators up there.

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Perhaps you’re nowhere near a transformer, though. And what you’re seeing isn’t a disk-shaped stack on a power line. No, what you’ve noticed is unmistakably spherical: a giant plastic ball hanging from the electrical wires overhead. You may be floating across a lake, driving through a canyon or simply passing by your local airport.

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These balls come in a variety of colors, too. At first, the go-to hue was red, but experts transitioned to using bright orange later on as their default. Still, you may still see crimson spheres or even yellow or even white ones. And as we previously mentioned, they come in different sizes.

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The balls generally sit at 200-feet intervals from one another, although they may be closer together as you approach an airport. All of these details give a hint as to the purpose of these spherical additions to your local power lines. And there’s one last ironic detail about them to consider.

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Interestingly enough, the giant power line spheres you see have to be fixed to the wires in a death-defying manner. Workers can’t always reach the lines, after all – even with the tallest cherry-picker. How do teams get up there? Well, they sometimes have to fly in a helicopter, which hovers next to the cable for long enough to attach the massive, brightly colored bead.

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And as we’ve previously discussed, these markers started appearing in the 1950s – if you believe one group of folks, anyway. Apparently, states including Florida and Arkansas began to hang the balls on their electrical wires. Others say that the trend started 20 years later in Arkansas, when the state’s governor took a flight and noticed something disconcerting upon landing.

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Supposedly, Winthrop Rockefeller looked out of the window of his plane and saw electrical cables right by the craft. That’s enough to spook anyone! And, rightly, Rockefeller believed that these live wires should be made more conspicuous to pilots making their way toward the runway. So, the spheres started appearing as a warning to aviation professionals: stay away from the dangerous cables ahead.

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Pilots in other states didn’t have the same warning system – at least, not as early as they had them in Arkansas. And in one case, it caused a disaster. At the tail-end of the 1980s, Colorado officials began to install the balls across their state’s famously rugged terrain, but they didn’t do it quickly enough to prevent an accident over the South Platte River.

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In 1988 a news channel’s helicopter collided with a thin steel cable that dangled 150 feet over the river. And, horrifically, that impact was enough to cause the vehicle to crash. There were casualties, too, as a pair of journalists both sadly perished in the tragic incident.

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But even with that and other accidents logged, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can’t make it a requirement for every state to hang the colorful balls on their live wires. Instead, the agency can only advocate that these warning symbols are used to protect overhead aircraft from fatal collisions.

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And, remarkably, it’s not uncommon for helicopter pilots to collide with live wires. A 2003 report in FAAviation News explained that they often hit the cables for any one of a number of issues. These include “dirty windscreens, light conditions [and] the obscuring effects of terrain and changes in visual perspective that occur during climb and descent.”

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On top of that, the report claimed that “accurately judging the helicopter’s distance from unmarked wires is nearly impossible.” Even a pilot who follows the same path back and forth from the airport could be at risk when wires change shape over the seasons, the color of the cables alter or if another optical illusion presents itself.

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There are also certain places where you’re more likely to see these spheres, which are known as visibility marker balls in the aviation field. They tend to dangle in spots where planes and helicopters often fly low – such as canyons, mountain passes and valleys – as well as over freeways and on the lead-up to airports.

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And the cables that zigzag across these areas have to be tagged with the visibility marker balls. Otherwise, as planes start to descend, their pilots may not be able to see the lines ahead. The FAA guidelines stipulate why the balls should come in certain sizes and colors, too.

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As you may have already guessed, the spheres you see over lakes, rivers and canyons are extra-large. The FAA stipulates that they be a minimum of 36 inches across, in fact. But those smaller markers – 20-inch balls – are deemed more than sufficient for power lines that are less than 50 feet in height. You’ll see the sized-down versions at the end of airport runways as well.

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And if you look out of your airplane window, you’ll see that the spheres are much closer together as you taxi toward the bottom of the runway. Those markers tend to have just 30 to 50 feet between them. That way, they act as handy indicators that the craft is approaching the edge of the tarmac.

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But why are the visibility markers red? Well, simply put, because you can see them against the sky! That said, a later FAA study found that orange was a more visible shade for pilots. So, you’re more likely to spot fire-colored spheres hanging from power lines nowadays, even if there will still be exceptions.

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Ultimately, it’s down to the surroundings in which the markers will hang. The color that makes them the most visible to pilots is the shade that local officials should choose. And in most cases, that hue is going to be a bright orange.

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If a wire is equipped with fewer than four balls, then all of them should come in this garish shade of clementine. Longer wires with more balls may be better served with a pattern of colors, however, to ensure that at least one of them catches the pilot’s eye. Most of these sequences change back and forth between orange, white and yellow.

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And the visibility markers haven’t just staved off aerial disaster. In 1983 an article from United Press International pointed out that the spheres had also helped steer geese away from dangerous live wires. Boat captains had learned to avoid them, too, the piece noted.

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That’s great news for professionals across the aviation and boating industries as well as those concerned with wildlife conservation. The giant, colorful spheres on your power lines do something: they save lives. And, now, when you drive by and see them in all their orange, red, yellow or white glory, you can appreciate all they do just by dangling from your city’s electrical cables.

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But power line spheres aren’t the only colorful objects to possess a powerful hidden meaning. Take the green lights that you might spot displayed outside of people’s homes, for example. While they’re bright and eye-catching, they actually have nothing to do with Halloween. As it turns out, in fact, the reason why people have decided to illuminate their houses with this color is much more poignant. It may even just leave you with a tear in your eye.

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It’s fair to say, then, that green isn’t the most obvious choice of color with which to illuminate your home. And if you spotted a property being bathed in verdant light, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ghoulish hue was trying to draw in trick-or-treaters. However, as previously mentioned, you’d be mistaken.

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Since 2015, you see, a campaign has been trying to attach a special meaning to the green light. More specifically, the aim is to use the color as a way of showing support to a certain section of society. And people are actively encouraged to display green lights on their porches and to try and convince their friends and family to do the same.

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An extract from a website that was set up to promote the green light campaign informs readers about how they can get involved, too. Yes, it urges people to “Change one light in a visible location in [their] home or office to green.” It then encourages individuals to keep the emerald light switched on every day – for a full 24 hours.

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What’s more, as well as asking people to display the correctly-colored lamp, those behind the campaign also want participants to spread the word about what they are doing. Their website reads, “Inspire others to join the cause by taking a picture of your green light and sharing it on social media.” Another extract then asks people to log their efforts on maps, and this allows them to see both how many people are getting involved and how far the participation is spreading across the country.

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As it turns out, then, the idea has seemingly caught on. And many people have got involved over the years, deciding to illuminate green lights of all shapes and sizes on the front of their properties. Some folk kept their displays subtle, with one emerald-colored lantern. But others went the whole hog, lighting up their whole houses in the grassy hue.

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And as the campaign grew, participants shared photos of their efforts on social media. Many of the images wound up on a dedicated Facebook page, which, as of November 2019, boasted over 27,000 likes. Meanwhile, the map depicting the whereabouts of the green lights showed more than nine million “online acts of support” from around the United States.

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Of course, the green light campaign isn’t the first time that an organization had harnessed the power of social media to raise awareness of a worthy cause. That’s right, in recent years a number of charity movements have achieved viral fame. All they had to do, you see, was capture the imagination of the general public and inspire them to get involved.

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One such viral moment was the Ice Bucket Challenge from back in 2014, and as you may remember, it took the internet by storm. As its name suggests, the activity required participants to douse themselves with a bucket of icy water while being filmed. And following their soaking, they would post the video to social media and nominate others to take the plunge.

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But what was the purpose of the Ice Bucket Challenge? Well, it was meant to raise awareness of ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The activity started to get some widespread coverage in July 2014, and it had soon earned viral status. In fact, during September 2014 alone, a whopping 17 million ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos were shared on Facebook.

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The campaign proved so popular that it attracted a number of high-profile participants. That’s right, celebrities such as Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey all completed the Ice Bucket Challenge – as did former U.S. president George W. Bush. The president at the time, Barack Obama, was also nominated. And despite ultimately deciding not to take part, he did end up donating $100 towards the cause.

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The success of the Ice Bucket Challenge was notably good news for a variety of Lou Gehrig’s disease charities, too. The ALS Association, for example, received donations totaling $115 million over just eight weeks in 2014. Furthermore, the majority of the money raised went towards funding research into the neurological disease.

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Given the good that the campaign had done, the ALS Association was eager to replicate its success the following year. But the campaign sadly didn’t catch on for a second time. In 2017 Brian Frederick, executive vice president of communications and development for the ALS Association, told Mashable, “I think we learned you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.”

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However, one non-profit campaign that’s managed to tick over year after year is Movember. The movement was founded back in 2003 by friends Luke Slattery and Travis Garone in Melbourne, Australia. At first, these two men had much simpler ambitions; they merely wanted to bring the mustache back into the public eye.

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But Slattery and Garone had a brainwave when they decided to make the humble ’tache a symbol of awareness for men’s health. In particular, the Movember campaign was designed to shine a light on male cancers and mental wellness. And as is self-explanatory, all participants had to do was raise money by sporting a mustache throughout the month of November.

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Since its launch, Movember has reportedly managed to keep growing annually. In its first year, for example, just 30 people took part. But in the following year, this number increased dramatically, seeing 480 people raise over $40,000 towards men’s health initiatives. And in 2010 over a million participants reportedly took part in Movember in 11 different countries.

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Like the Ice Bucket Challenge, Movember has also attracted celebrity supporters over the years. These include the likes of Ryan Reynolds, Chris Hemsworth and David Beckham – all of whom proudly promoted the campaign on their own faces. And with the help of social media, they could encourage even more people to get involved.

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Another viral charity campaign that received celebrity backing was the #NoMakeUpSelfie movement in aid of Cancer Research. This trend initially started out in the U.K., but it soon attracted some of Hollywood’s most famous faces. And they were more than willing to bare all in order to raise awareness of the cause.

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Among the women to get involved in the #NoMakeUpSelfie campaign were celebrities such as Rihanna, Beyoncé and Cara Delevingne. They, like hundreds of others, took to social media to share a photograph of themselves in all their natural glory. And thanks to the awareness that was raised, the U.K. charity Cancer Research received millions in donations.

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Following the success of the #NoMakeUpSelfie trend in 2014, Harpal Kumar – the chief executive of Cancer Research U.K. – issued a statement to the Press Association. In it, he talked about the group’s astonishment at how much the public backed the initiative. He said, “We have been overwhelmed by the support people have been showing us through the #nomakeupselfie trend.”

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Kumar continued, “We don’t receive any government funding for our research. And so it is phenomenal to think that the generosity of the public is enabling us to fund critical research that we didn’t have the money for six days ago… It has been an exciting week, and we would just like to thank everyone again for their support.”

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Part of the beauty of viral, non-profit campaigns is that they can restore our collective confidence in human kindness. If timed correctly, they can give society something to feel good about when current affairs stories seem to address somewhat depressing topics. And the green light campaign is by no means any different.

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Like the Ice Bucket Challenge and Movemeber before it, the green light movement relies on the goodwill of everyday people. It encourages individuals to take inspiration from their friends, families and neighbors to get involved and share their efforts online. That way, they can join the viral revolution and raise the profile of a good cause.

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But what exactly is the green light movement in aid of? Well, to give it its proper name, the Green Light a Vet campaign aims to raise awareness of veterans and show appreciation for the sacrifices that they make for their country. And as you may have already guessed, all people have to do to get involved is change the color of one of their bulbs.

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The organizers of the Green Light a Vet campaign even includes entities such as the retail chain Walmart. The initiative as a whole, you see, wants to create a clear symbol to military personal that their service is highly valued. So, neighborhoods can show their appreciation without saying a word; they simply have to flick a switch.

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The Green Light a Vet campaign was launched to coincide with Veterans Day in 2015. And the symbolism behind the initiative was revealed in a statement from the Walmart Foundation at the time. It read, “A green light means go and that’s what veterans are known for – their ability to take action quickly no matter the challenge.”

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Meanwhile, as an extract from the Green Light a Vet Facebook page points out, “Green is the color of hope, renewal and well-being. ‘Green Light’ is also a term commonly used to activate forward movement.” And that’s why the verdant shade was chosen to be the best color to “shine a light on America’s veterans.”

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Gary Profit is a former brigadier general who subsequently went on to become Walmart’s senior director of military programs. In an interview with TheBlaze in 2015 he revealed what the Green Light a Vet campaign meant specifically to him. Profit said, “I hope it symbolizes what I have felt certainly since 9/11.”

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Profit then went on to explain what he meant by that statement. He said, “That is the sense that, whether one agrees with the decisions to do things from a national security perspective, there is this universal sense that we should honor the service and respect the sacrifice of those who have worn the nation’s uniform and the families who have supported them.”

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Within weeks of the campaign launching in 2015, some 1.5 million people had promised to get involved. And many of the people who pledged their support shared their efforts on social media, alongside the hashtag “greenlightavet.” As a result, Blue Star Families’ CEO Kathy Roth-Douquet told TheBlaze that she was “thrilled” with the response.

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Blue Star Families is an organization that was created by the spouses of military personnel in August 2009. It aims to help the families of service personnel and also to raise awareness of the challenges that they often face. And as a result, it is a perfect partner for the Green Light a Vet campaign.

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One challenge that service personnel face is establishing roots with their families. That’s because their job involves them moving around a lot. But Roth-Douquet hoped that the Green Light a Vet campaign would help them to feel more connected. She told TheBlaze, “We think this initiative is very important. Military families love the work they do for the country, but they can feel isolated from their neighbors.”

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Roth-Douquet continued, “You can not know your neighbors, and it’s easy to not know whether your neighbors know the hard work that you’re doing… I think this green light initiative is a really beautiful way to do that. You see green lights dotting the porches, and that’s a wonderful visualization that people know you’re there, and they do care.”

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Furthermore, Walmart’s pledge to partner with the Green Light a Vet campaign isn’t the only way that it reaches out to military members. Yes, the retailer also encourages businesses to employ veterans or their spouses – with the aim of making civilian life easier for them. Often, you see, the challenges of military life mean that the partners of service personnel can struggle to find employment.

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Roth-Douquet elaborated on this idea to TheBlaze. She said, “Moving the way they do, it’s very hard for the non-military member to keep working… We can remember to include the person who also serves, besides the one in the uniform, acknowledge them and help them find the work that they can do.”

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Gary Profit, it seems, shares a similar belief. He agrees that society needs to better understand the challenges faced by a number of military personnel. Speaking of Green Light a Vet, he said, “We think that the campaign is entirely intended to spark a movement where we change the dialogue in our communities to one that recognizes the value of veterans and their families.”

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Four years after it launched, then, it seems that the Green Light a Vet campaign is really starting to catch on. People show their support for the initiative across social media by posting photos of their emerald-hued lanterns. And many of them write heartfelt tributes to the military alongside their snaps.

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One poignant post shared on Instagram in 2017 showed a lantern glowing green outside someone’s front door. And alongside the snap, the user wrote, “Thank you to all the veterans out there who served, fought, sacrificed… choosing to put their lives on hold and run to the sound of chaos because they believed in something bigger than themselves.”

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This particular internet user’s glowing tribute continued along the same lines. The grateful person went on, “Thank you to all the military families who have been and continue to be the glue and the foundation. You can never be thanked enough… You’re proof that our freedoms have never come free.”

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Concluding their post in support of the Green Light A Vet campaign, the participant also expressed her gratitude to all those people that continue to serve today. She said, “Thank you to all my brothers and sisters deployed right now finding and destroying evil all over the world. Stay safe and get after it!”

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