Soldiers visited two Marion Elementary School classes to express gratitude for an act of kindness students bestowed upon them about a year ago, and ended up answering a barrage of questions.
Matt Williams of Florence and Jeremy Lee of Wichita were part of the 134th Air Control Squadron stationed in the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East last Christmas when they received cards, letters, and packages from MES first and fourth graders.
“It helped connect me back to reality, where I came from, and it really was a good thing,” Williams said.
A year older, those students met with Williams, Lee and Luke Steele, an Army Reserve medic, and the questions began to fly.
“What did you do over there?” one student asked.
Williams deferred to Lee, who now works in the 18th Intelligence Division at McConnell Air Force Base.
“As an air control squadron, our mission at the time was to talk to the plans and tell them where to go like they do in the air towers at air ports,” he said. “Only instead of keeping planes apart, we brought planes together. They call it ‘stacking.’ It was fun. It was controlled chaos.”
Williams used a metaphor to help explain.
“We were like the lines on a highway,” he said.
Williams also briefly explained the geography of the arid region and a weather anomaly that happened while they were there.
“We were in a desert,” he said. “It was really hot, but it rained a lot, so much that it flooded. Our tent was down where all the water went so we had to put our desks up on bricks.”
Solders told how they help at natural disasters like the Greensburg tornado and hurricane Katrina.
Another student asked how scared they were when they first started, to which Lee replied, “It was little intimidating.”
He joked that the scariest mission he had ever been on was “Call of Duty: Black Ops” a popular video game.
Williams was 20 when he started, “I was still young and bullet proof.”
He once drove through a demonstration that turned into a riot, stating that his group was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Steele spoke of a Black Hawk helicopter training exercise in a mountain range that was both scary and exciting to him.
Another student asked, “What kind of guns do you carry?”
Lee’s reply appeared meant to quell further questions about firearms.
“We don’t usually carry guns,” he said. “We don’t shoot people. We’re not the pilots.”
However, another student asked, “Did you ever have to shoot anyone?”
Teachers and soldiers exchanged quick glances.
“No,” was the answer.
Away from students’ machine-gun queries, soldiers spoke about receiving last year’s letters.
“It was nice to get around the holidays,” Lee said. “There were a lot of stick-figure drawings and American flags, and many of them said ‘thank you’ and ‘stay safe.’ It was pretty cool.”
The collective message seemed meant to uplift soldiers’ spirits while they were away from home during the holidays.
Having previous experience sending things to troops overseas, MES teacher aide Janice Waner facilitated letter writing.
“Students wrote and made Christmas cards, edited the letters and did the whole spiel,” Waner said. “Everyone loves letters. They sent some back to the kids with authentic Arabic food and candy that had Arabic letters written on them.”
Waner said students seemed to like the taste of Arabic chocolate more than dates.
“A lot of the food over there is an acquired taste,” Williams said.
Soldiers commended Waner for the organizing the kind act.