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Air Force Members Share Donations, Song with South Africans

By Capt. Heather Healy, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

DITHOLO, South Africa, July 12, 2004 – The road to Kgautswane is dusty and disheartening.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Victor D. Grubbs, a member of 3rd Air Force from the Royal Air Force base at Mildenhall, England, leads and teaches a spiritual song to the children of the Kgautswane Community Development Center in Kgautswane, South Africa, July 10. Air Force personnel, deployed to South Africa forthe MedFlag 2004, assisted in delivering donations to the children of theKgautswane Community Development Center. Members of the 48th Medical Groupcollected eight boxes of donations before deploying to South Africa in early July. Photo by Master Sgt. Doris Libby, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

Fifty airmen participating in exercise MedFlag 2004 at South African Air Base Hoedspruit learned this fact as they rode down the remote rural road July 10, covering their noses and mouths with their hats to breathe as a brownish cloud filled the bus.

"It's easy to see how most of the children we've seen at the clinics have respiratory problems," said Capt. Angela Mongillo, a 48th Medical Group pediatric nurse, who has spent most of her days in South Africa treating children in several humanitarian-assistance sites near Hoedspruit. When the dust settled, many airmen were shocked at the sight.

"It's kind of emotional," said Tech. Sgt. Roderick Soares, a member of the Air National Guard's 143rd Airlift Wing from Quonset Point, R.I. "This isn't what I expected."

The bus rolled to a stop in front of a Coca-Cola sign that read "Welcome to Kgautswane Community Development Center."

According to the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, Kgautswane is well known for its efforts in taking care of abandoned children and for its adult center that teaches men and women how to cook, garden, sew, make crafts and develop computer skills.

Members from the 48th Medical Group, deployed from the Royal Air Force base at Lakenheath, England, had spent months gathering donations to give to a worthy cause while participating in MedFlag 2004, and now it was time to deliver.

But before the donations could be offloaded, the U.S. Air Force personnel had to meet Chief Lekgala, leader of the village, and its 95,000 inhabitants, said Clera Masilela, the director of the center.

"You are welcome here. We are grateful to be meeting people from the United States of America," said Chief Lekgala. "Please be at home. You coming here will bring good things."

The airmen weren't the only ones with good things to give. Upon arrival, the group was immediately greeted by smiling children singing songs in their native language.

"I don't know how you put it into words," said Maj. Randall Ashmore, 48th MDG. "I was very touched, humbled and very grateful that we were able to make a difference in those kids' lives. I was amazed at what (the center) had done with those children. They had a spirit and an energy about them. It was amazing."

When the children were done singing, there was a group of nearly 100 women, men and children crowding near the airmen asking for a song in return.

Not surprisingly, no one had prepared for a musical performance; however, talent quickly emerged from the crowd when Tech. Sgt. Victor Grubbs was called to the front of the group.

"There are three words to this song," said Grubbs. "Amen, Amen and Amen."

With his soulful voice, Grubbs led the U.S. airmen, and eventually the entire village, in a sing along that rivaled any gospel session across the world.

"I was very happy when they called me up to the front of the group. It was one of the few moments I was really glad someone knew I sang," said Grubbs. "When the villagers started joining in, it just reminded me that we're all alike. It's just a feeling of unity. My heart just rejoiced that they felt comfortable enough to join in."

After the sing-along, the airmen filed into lines to unload the 4,000 pounds of donations. Bag after bag of shoes, clothing, and toys came off the truck and were passed into the community center.

The road away from Kgautswane is still dusty, but it was also enlightening to the airmen.

"I look at it from my perspective, being an African American, and I realize how blessed we are as Americans," said Tech. Sgt. Paul Thomas, a 48th MDG laboratory technician. "It's opened my eyes and touched me more than words can ever explain.

"The villagers are content with their lives," Thomas continued. "They press on with life as is. I'm never, ever going to complain about my situation or what I do or don't have ever again. It's been a true revelation. I hope everybody keeps what they saw today in their hearts. I thank God and the Air Force for letting me experience this."

(Air Force Capt. Heather Healy is assigned to MedFlag Public Affairs.)

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Related Sites:
48th Medical Group
State Department Background Notes on South Africa

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