United by the flag

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bruno M. De Backer
  • 452nd Maintenance Squadron
As an aircraft electro-environmental systems air reserve technician on both cargo and tanker aircraft, I am required to deploy worldwide in support of varied missions. Being away from home can be stressful and lonely, and small things can make a big difference in the quality of life while deployed.

During one such deployment in February 2002 to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, we received boxes of letters from folks back home and a box of hand-drawn U.S. flags from school children. It is always comforting to hear from total strangers that your sacrifices are appreciated and that they wish you well.

After reading a few letters, I was drawn to the cardboard box of flags. They came in all sort of designs: some with just a few stars, some with very wide stripes and others with interesting color schemes. The one I picked was from a fifth grade student in Junction City, Ohio, and it resembled more closely the flags we have on our aircraft.

The back of the flag had the school, teacher and the student's name written in blue crayon, but no mailing address. I really wanted to thank this young patriot and let him know that his effort was greatly appreciated. I looked at other flags but still didn't find any contact info.

I turned to the Internet, and after a brief search, I found a mailing address for the school. I wrote a short letter to the student thanking him for the flag and to let him know it was proudly displayed in tent #1245, Hodja Village ("tent city") at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

Upon returning to March, I found a large letter written on easel paper from the young patriot's fifth grade class. The students were very thankful for my service and also concerned for my safety. The teacher also informed me that my letter had been published in the local newspaper.

The students were curious about the weather, topography and people of Turkey, so I responded to their questions and received another letter in return with a class picture. I then contacted my Reserve superintendent for support. Responding to letters, we sent them a couple of challenge coins as well as a picture of one of our C-141s and KC-135s, signed by several members of our unit.

On Aug. 29, 2002, I was deployed for Operation Deep Freeze. As the lead crew chief on mission ICE 05, bound for McMurdo Station, Antarctica, as part of our resupply effort in support of the National Science Foundation. I brought the student's paper flag with me to the bottom of the earth. I sent the class a letter and pictures of their flag in Antarctica, as well as literature on the National Science Foundation role there.

In June of 2009, the flag once again accompanied me on an Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment to Andersen Air Base, Guam, and earlier this year, the flag went with me back to where it all began, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, for Operation New Dawn. This time, I bought a real, cloth flag and had it flown aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker during a combat mission in honor of Junction City Elementary School.

The response was nearly immediate. The original students who sent the handmade paper flags have graduated from the Junction City school system and are now pursuing careers and college educations, but I received 52 individual letters from a new group of students at Junction City Elementary.

While reading these letters, I was troubled that a few students seemed surprised that I would remember or care about such a little school in such a small town. I thought about the reasons I had continued to make the extra effort to stay connected with these students. In the end, it is because I want to show them that as individuals, they are important to this nation, and even at their very young age, they can make a difference.

I will never forget these young patriots and I want them to understand that their support is absolutely critical to our mission success as well as our morale and welfare. To that end, I have shared their letters with my squadron (the 452nd Maintenance Squadron) as well as many others here at March Air Reserve Base. Recently, other March members have written letters to these students at Junction City Elementary School and their letters will accompany my next response to the students.

To me, it is important that the tokens the students and I exchange often involve the flag: the symbol of our country. I hope to continue the connection with the school throughout the rest of my Air Force career and I would encourage other service members to do the same when they receive care packages and letters from students while they are deployed.

Keep up with what's going on at March through the base website,Facebook and Twitter.