KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- It's not uncommon for deployed military members to receive boxes of goodies and letters from organizations and schools back in the United States. Letters of thanks are also common but the connection forged by the 361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron Airmen was a little out of the ordinary.
Above and beyond one might say.
Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Taylor, 361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron superintendent, received a care package from an American History class at Mason High School, Mason, Ohio. The package was part of a Support the Troops initiative by Katie Hicks, Mason High School social studies department. The package contained snacks, supplies and some personalized letters to the Airmen serving at KAF.
"As the superintendent, I went through the box to see what I could distribute to my Airmen," Taylor said. "There were so many goodies and things that I was kind of overwhelmed. What really got me was the personalized letters expressing the students' support for troops. One letter was from Katie, the class teacher, so I did some research and reached out to her to let her know we got the package and to thank her for thinking about us."
From there, the two formulated a plan to introduce students at Mason High School to a Airmen currently serving in Afghanistan. What started out as a selfless act of thanking America's Airmen became an opportunity for the Airmen to give students a real-life look into the deployed environment.
Since Veteran's Day fell on a Sunday, Taylor and Hicks coordinated five video teleconference sessions using Skype to talk with the students when school would be back in session Sept. 12. Each 20 to 45 minute session enabled more than 650 students and handful of Airmen to talk about everything from the food deployed service members eat to the sports teams they support. Skype is a software application that uses a voice-over-Internet protocol to enable computers and mobile devices to perform video teleconferencing.
Taylor's initiative led to a cross section of Airmen taking part in teleconference sessions; from active duty to Air National Guard, officers to enlisted, and pilots and maintainers to administrative personnel. They all had one thing in common: the chance to talk with the next generation of Americans.
The experience left a positive impression on the students and faculty alike.
"This was certainly a memorable teaching day as we got to see the kid's truly engaged and excited about learning from all of you," said Hicks about the student's talk with Airmen. "We all came back up to our classrooms and just commented on so many aspects of the day."
Some of the students were texting and taking pictures during the sessions to converse with the Airmen and Hicks has already received emails from students' parents expressing how inspired their children were after talking with real service members serving in Afghanistan.
"I think there will be some great conversations around dinner tables tonight in Mason thanks to all of you," Hicks said. "As wives and husbands and parents it just makes us all the more thankful and appreciative of the time we have with our families. As Americans it makes us proud and helps us feel secure to know we are protected by a first-class military with such talented, smart people."
A common theme during the sessions was how time had little presence while deployed. Once Airmen establish a routine, each day seems the same as the day before, according to 1st Lt. Scott Ball, 361st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron MC-12 pilot.
"It's kind of like Groundhog Day," said Ball to the students. "You wake up, get your shower or gym time in, go and get a cup of coffee before meeting the challenges of the day and then before you know it, it's dinner time. Then you go back to you room, read a book, watch whatever movies you have on your tablet or laptop until it's time to go to bed, and the next day you start all over. "
However, Taylor admitted the time spent talking to the students will stick out in his memory as not just another day while deployed.
"I think we got as much out of the day as they did. It was a fun day." Taylor said. "It definitely wasn't just another 'Groundhog Day.' It's a day that I will member for a long time!"