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On 'Soldier Day' children try out parents' life while deployed

Soldier Day
Sgt. David Kirkpatrick, left, points to a photo of an operating base in Afghanistan for his son, Hunter, second from left, during Rainbow Elementary School's "Soldier Day" on April 26, 2012. The event was an effort to alleviate fears about parent deployments by introducing children to the daily routine of a soldier. It was held at the Army post in Katterbach, Germany, home to the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, which is soon to deploy to Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Photo: Stephen Beardsley, Stars & Stripes

KATTERBACH, Germany — On the cusp of his third deployment, Sgt. David Kirkpatrick is preparing to leave two sons behind, each with his own understanding of where Dad is going.

While 9-year-old Hunter knows many of the details, brother Lucas, 7, is aware only "that Dad's going away for a while," the father said.

On Thursday, Kirkpatrick and his family participated in Soldier Day at the Army post here, a joint effort by the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and the local Department of Defense Dependents Schools elementary school. The goal was to explain the unit's upcoming deployment to children by introducing them to routine tasks their parents will perform downrange.

The brigade, a helicopter unit stationed in Katterbach, is currently deploying for operations in Afghanistan and Kuwait.

"We were trying to somehow find a way to lessen the stress on the children, and, if you will, demystify the deployment process," said Percy Wilson, school counselor at Rainbow Elementary School, which organized the event with the 412th Aviation Support Battalion.

Inside one of the post's large hangars, more than 300 children moved through 18 stations. Each station focused on a separate task or concept, such as physical training, map reading and preparing a Meals, Ready to Eat.

Children ran an obstacle course, practiced marching in step and sat behind the wheel of a Humvee, where they eagerly slammed on the horn. Soldiers hoisted them into the cockpit of a Black Hawk helicopter.

At one booth, Staff Sgt. Michael Lukeman and Sgt. Chris Huesing, both of the 412th ASB, pointed to a map of Afghanistan, explaining where part of the brigade was bound. They passed around photos of the operating base, noting it had both a Burger King and Pizza Hut.

The photos — of the camp, helicopters and Afghan landscapes — often won more attention than the explanations.

"At this age, from what we understand, it's better for them to visualize it," Lukeman said.

Children's understanding of, and feelings toward, deployment depend on their age and the extent to which their parents explain what's happening, according to teachers and parents here.

Kirkpatrick, of Company A, 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, said his boys become apprehensive only when they sense unease from the adults around them.

Wilson, the school counselor, said children remain calm about deployments when their parents are calm. Rainbow Elementary also tries to prepare students, he added, teaching about deployment and showing a "Sesame Street" video on the topic.

"Their level of knowledge of deployment is pretty good," Wilson said. "Their level of understanding — who knows? They know Mom and Dad are going to Afghanistan or Iraq. They know they're going to be gone for a long time. They know they can talk to them on Skype."

Third-grader Sydney Hogue, 9, said her father had already deployed, although she didn't know where. He "flies medical," she said.

Lying on her belly before a large farewell banner at the Family Readiness Group station, Sydney scribbled a message, though she wasn't sure whom it was for. "Be carefull," it read.