Story and photos by Staff Sgt. Don Branum
Academy Public Affairs
For about 200 members of the Academy community, Saturday started with a 7 a.m. wake-up call from the Command Center. By 9:30 a.m., they filled the predeployment center on the south side of the base to receive safety and cultural awareness briefings, set up allotments to their family members back home and get vaccinations. An hour later, they boarded one of three buses headed for Usafastan.
Only this deployment was a bit different from most: most of the 200 deployers were school-age children, the vaccinations were stamps instead of shots, and Usafastan was just a few miles north in Jacks Valley.
The young troops deployed for one day in support of Operation Junior Deployer, an event put together by the Academy’s 10th Force Support Squadron to help children understand some of the things their parents go through before and during their deployments.
During their predeployment briefing, children learned about possible health and safety hazards in Jacks Valley. They also learned a bit about Middle Eastern culture and why it’s important to understand different cultures, courtesy of Academy Chaplain (Capt.) Steven Barfield.
“When you understand (other people’s) culture, you can build their trust,” Chaplain Barfield said. “And when you build their trust, they become your friends, and they can help you beat the bad guys.”
After the briefings, the children – broken up into red, white and blue chalks – went through four deployment processing stations. Senior Airman Sarrah Brion of the 10th Force Support Squadron gave orders and dog tags to each child. Airmen 1st Class Geovaney Miramontes and Jennifer O’Brien from Academy Finance issued play money and helped children set up allotments to family members. Capt. Valerie Nolan from the Staff Judge Advocate office helped children fill out forms to determine who would take care of their pets while they were gone. Finally, Airmen with the 10th Medical Group gave children candy (“malaria medicine”) and stamps (“immunizations”). Nearby, volunteers set up stations where children could have their faces painted and write letters to their families.
Once everyone made it through the processing line, Col. Rick LoCastro, the 10th Air Base Wing commander, got the crowd jazzed up and ready to go. The families boarded three buses bound for Usafastan, and Colonel LoCastro led the way in his staff vehicle. Once the buses arrived, the children immediately hit the field, armed with kickballs, flying discs, sacks for a sack race and a tug-o-war rope.
Airmen, civilians and family members from the Academy and nearby bases volunteered to support the event. One of the volunteers was Cynthia Cope, a resource manager with the 10th Medical Group.
“People need to be introduced to volunteering,” said Ms. Cope, who started volunteering for projects while she was on active duty and who was involved with reforestation efforts here for Arbor Day in April. “A lot of people don’t like to volunteer at first, but once you get them involved and they feel good about themselves, they start to look for other opportunities.”
After a lunch of hamburgers, bratwurst and meals ready-to-eat, the children took back to the field to watch two military working dogs, Otis and Benga, show off their antiterrorism skills along with their handlers, 10th Security Forces Squadron Staff Sgts. Gary Resta and Zerrick Shanks. Afterward, 10th SFS Airmen set up static displays with some of the equipment, including a Humvee and small-arms rifles that they use downrange. As the afternoon waned, the children reboarded the buses and headed to a “Welcome Home” celebration featuring the Air Force cheerleading team.
One parent who attended Operation Junior Deployer, Leah Terrill, said she first found out about it through a sign near the Community Center and thought it would be a good experience for her children.
“Our kids have never done anything like this before, and I think it will help them out when their dad does deploy,” Ms. Terrill said.