Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Air Guard general shares Afghanistan experience with school children

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va., (10/18/10) - His tan flight suit looked slightly out of place against the multi-colored walls of the elementary school library.

But Air Force Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh, who recently returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan as commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing at Khandahar Air Field, was on a mission.

He wanted to share his deployment experiences with the elementary school children, who sent letters, pictures and books him and his Airmen during his deployment.

For the children, it was a way to say thank you for serving and a way to learn a bit more about current events, said Bonnie Oxley, a third grade teacher at Clark Wood Elementary School in Elkland, Pa., whose class adopted the Airmen.

"We write letters to servicemembers every year," she said. "My husband is retired Air Force, and I know what it feels like to have him on one continent and your children on another continent."

This time it was a bit different and included a connection to the school.

"This was unique in that my wife is a school teacher and one of the teachers she works with taught here at Clark Wood Elementary," said Walsh. "So, (the class was) looking for a location to send letters to and that's how it started."

For Walsh and his Airmen, reading and answering the letters had its own benefit.

"It was a great interaction and a good way to stay in touch with what's going on back home," said Walsh. "The students all wrote some amazing questions. There was a lot of thought that went into them, and we had tons of letters, which were very in-depth and detailed."

Though many of the questions posed by the students centered around daily life while serving in Afghanistan, many others focused on other things as well.

"It was such a broad range," said Walsh. "There were a lot that asked about family pets and about things back home."

Their involvement personalized an event currently in the news.

"A servicemember, particularly a general officer, is often some sort of icon, a comic book figure or this unknown entity," said Walsh. "So, it's great to come back and say no, it's a normal human being with kids, with pets and I think that's sometimes why they ask those questions."

And for the students, receiving a response was just as exciting.

"They loved … hearing back from them," said Oxley.

The general's letters also helped to reinforce lessons in the classroom.

"(The students) get a little bit of a geography lesson figuring out where these people are that we're writing to," said Oxley.

During his visit, Walsh continued those lessons.

"He talked about staying fit and doing exercise and about being a lifelong learner," said Oxley. "That's huge. That's something that we talk about to these kids all the time that you don't stop when you graduate from high school, that if you really want to keep moving on you're going to be a lifelong learner."

Visiting the students was one of the highlights of his career, said Walsh, who is set to retire soon after serving 35 years.

His recent assignment to Afghanistan was another highpoint. Walsh was the first Air National Guard general officer to stand up a wing in Afghanistan.

"I was very fortunate to be able to do that," he said. "Standing up a new wing -- instead of just being handed over the continuity book, the patch and the (commander's) coins -- means you literally start from scratch.

"So, you write your own vision statements, you write your own mission statements, you design a patch. That experience, in addition to commanding in a combat zone, was a tremendous experience."

The deployment also had its challenges.

"We started out with very austere and very rudimentary systems in terms of our communications and facilities," said Walsh. "Over that year, we were able to build a new headquarters and a new area there. Those were the biggest challenges and the biggest successes as well."

Those successes, said Walsh, came from building relationships, which at times presented its own difficulties.

"It's different than what you're used to," said Walsh, referring to being a wing commander in Afghanistan. "As the wing commander, you're the senior field authority… so you were the base commander and the air field commander. In this case you were neither one."

Walsh had to ensure he had open communication channels with those who were.

"It was very important to develop relationships both with NATO and with the U.S. Army, who was the base operator," he said.

During his time in Afghanistan, Walsh also flew 79 combat missions in the A-10 Thunderbolt II with the wing.

"I had the opportunity to fly on our HH-60 (Pavehawks), with our C-130Js, and several of the different airframes that we had over there," he said. "It was tremendous to be over there and get to take part in that."

He also had the opportunity to fly with pilots from the 175th Airlift Wing, the wing he commanded back home in the Maryland Air National Guard.

"That was very special to be able to do that," said Walsh. "To fly with the guys you train, organize and equip for war and to command them not only in peace time but also to command them in Afghanistan was one of those very fortunate things I got to do."

Looking back over his career, Walsh said the people he served allowed him to be successful.

"The number one piece of that 35 years has been the people I've worked with, without a doubt," he said. "It's just been at tremendous journey."

Walsh said that he would do it all over again, if he had the opportunity, which is why he visited Clark Wood Elementary.

"For some that may be joining the military," he said. "For others it may be service in another way. Any time, at this age, you can't talk enough about service and helping out in the community and those sorts of things."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Guy Walsh high-fives students from Clark Wood Elementary School in Elkland, Pa., during a visit to the school, Oct. 7, 2010. Walsh, commander of the 451st Expeditionary Wing while deployed to Khandahar, Afghanistan, corresponded with third and fourth graders at the school during his year-long deployment. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy) Hi-res


No comments:

Post a Comment