53rd visits school, returns with new troop

  • Published
  • By Trisha Branagan
The sweet sound of hundreds of children singing rang out across Longwood Elementary School's playground Friday morning as the students paid tribute to the men and women who serve in the 53d Wing with a song about the joy of being free in America. 

They were led by fifth-grader Elle Downs, who understands the sacrifice it takes to protect that freedom: her father, Maj. Brian Downs, was killed in a small plane crash while serving in Iraq last May. 

It was the first time Elle had ever sung in front of such a large crowd, but she led her schoolmates with a clear voice and a big smile. 

The event capped "Celebrate Freedom Week," the last week in September, when students across the state take time to learn more about the Declaration of Independence and the values it espouses. 

Marcus Chambers, Longwood principal and honorary squadron commander for the 53d Computer Systems Squadron, thanked school board member Cindy Frakes, assistant superintendent Kaye McKinley and the parent volunteers for helping them celebrate freedom that day. He explained to the children that their guests of honor from the 53rd Wing were true heroes. 

"Our school mission statement is 'Think, Dream, Believe, Achieve,'" he reminded the students. "You are able to dream and achieve as a direct result of the service of all the fine military members." 

Choctawhatchee High School's Air Force ROTC Color Guard made a special contribution to the ceremony with a solemn presentation of the flags of the United States and the State of Florida. 

After the national anthem and the children's song, fifth-grader Bailey Reese presented Col. Ken Wilsbach, 53d commander, a stuffed bear, dressed in Air Force blue. Bailey is the founder of "Hero Hugs," a non-profit organization which sends candy and cards each month to support the troops stationed in Iraq. 

"I gave the 53d Wing "Super Hero" because I wanted the soldiers to know we are proud of them for what they do and that they are super heroes," said Bailey. "I knew the 53d would like getting to be a part of helping kids learn what it is like for our soldiers in the military." 

The wing commander was touched by the gesture. 

"This really means a lot to me," Wilsbach told her later. "When I was in Iraq, the most meaningful thing was getting something from people you didn't know. I received Valentine's cards which a class of children had made for us - they were really precious." 

A personal encounter with the colonel 

Colonel Wilsbach met with the fifth-grade classes after the ceremony and a breakfast reception, answering questions about his service as a pilot in Iraq and around the world. He related well to his young audience, telling them how he had always wanted to be a pilot, ever since elementary school. 

"Whatever you want to do right now, you can do," he said. "That's the cool thing about our country. I've been to fifty countries around the world and this is the only place I've seen where that's really true." 

When someone asked if he got scared in Iraq, he responded that his training prepared him for the challenge. "Nobody has airplanes like ours," he said. "And training is a lot like homework - you do it and then you say, 'I'm ready to go.'" 

"Do you get tired when you're in Iraq?" another student asked. 

"Oh, yes," responded the colonel with a smile. "It's tiring. You get sand everywhere, even between your teeth. You have to wear goggles to keep it out of your eyes. It's also very hot over there - you have to drink a lot of water. " 
"My mom's in Iraq," a young girl informed him. 

"Do you miss her?" he asked. 

When she answered yes and told him she'd be gone three more months, he added: "Make sure you call her a lot and send a lot of emails. When you're over there, the coolest thing is seeing your mailbox full." 

Other students asked about the food the soldiers ate. Many of them have parents who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, so some had tasted MRE's. Wilsbach explained that in Iraq, the Airmen had a chow hall, where the cooks prepared regular meals. 

"But when you're hungry, the MRE's can taste pretty good," he told them. 

More and more hands shot up with questions or proud statements about the service of their parents, until finally the colonel had to say good-bye. He promised to keep in touch with the students, who participate in aviation activities throughout the year as part of the CHOICE program. The students agreed to send him suggestions of names for the new bear mascot, with reasons for their suggestions. 

"We'll vote on the name within the wing and let you know," he assured them.