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Serving in Afghanistan Makes You Think More About Freedom, Being American

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2002 – Middle school children are of the right age to discuss patriotism and freedom, said Air Force 1st Lt. Kathryn "Kate" M. Gries, a panelist on an April 30 Web cast aimed at middle schools across the nation.

"They're starting to form ideas as young adults. We're talking to them, not to bring out the banner today, but to have them look at their lives and see what freedom has given them," said Gries, 26, who co-piloted a B-1B bomber over Afghanistan in late 2001. "We also want to find out what parts of freedom they're most appreciative of."

She sat on a panel of military personnel and civilians who participated in the discussion program about patriotism and freedom at Washington's Bertie Backus Middle School. The program was Web cast to 14 middle schools across the nation and publicly transmitted via satellite.

She said her patriotism was enhanced by her Afghanistan combat experiences. "Being called to do your job added tremendous motivation and dedication back in our squad room," said Gries, who flew combat missions with the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and today the unit's only female B-1B pilot.

The Roseburg, Ore., native said it was heartwarming to receive letters from anonymous people who just wanted to wish service members well and to say how proud they are of armed forces personnel.

Another military panelist, Army Ranger Sgt. LaShaun O'Neal Lawery, helped ensure all landing zones were clear of hostile forces as part of the first offensive action of Operation Enduring Freedom. He also conducted a combat parachute assault with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, onto Objective Rhino last Oct. 19.

Lawery, 21, of Richmond, Va., served in Afghanistan from October to January. "It wasn't too bad," he said. "We stayed in tents and trained when we could if we weren't out doing actual missions. A lot of people missed their families, especially the married people."

The Baltimore, Md., native said he joined the Army in August 1998 to follow in his parents' footsteps. He said serving in Afghanistan made him think more about what it means to be an American.

"In other places I've served, they're told what to do, what to think, how to live, whereas in the United States we have freedom to do as you please, within reason. We can say what we want to say and think how we want to think," he said. Lawery has also served in Africa, Germany and South America.

Calling the American society "forgetful," Thomas Heidenberger said the Web cast to middle schools across the country "is an ideal opportunity to tell our children about patriotism and freedom. These kids are going to be our future leaders in government, in the workplace, and they're going to be parents.

"This is an ideal vehicle to tell the kids what our ways of life are -- freedom of choice, freedom of expression and how we got to this point," he said. Heidenberger's wife, Michele, was the senior flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when the hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

A U.S. Airways pilot, Heidenberger said children need to know about the sacrifices made during the Revolutionary War, what happened in World War II and the Vietnam War -- and what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Those 3,200 that died essentially were victims in the war on terrorism, which turned out to be an act of war," said the father of two children. "It was an attack on our way of life, our freedom and our will and desire to live the way we live -- free and open-minded."

He said he thinks enough emphasis isn't made or directed toward the way Americans live and the symbols that define them. "The American flag is a symbol of democracy," Heidenberger noted. "The flag stands for freedom and our way of life."

Heather Davis, 17, said having her father on a warship thousands of miles away is "a huge sacrifice, not only for myself but for my family as well.

"I miss our talks, our jokes and having a dad around the house to do all the handiwork, but I'm very proud of him because he's serving a great need for our country," she said.

Davis, a junior at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Va., and Adam Popp, 14, an eighth grader at Corporate Landing Middle School, also in Virginia Beach, were invited as panelists because their fathers are serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy.

"I think it's amazing how we've all come together since Sept. 11," said Davis, whose stepfather, Senior Chief Petty Officer Terry Matthews, is responsible for landing and launching jet fighter aircraft aboard the Kennedy. "It really hits you in the heart when you see your nation coming together to overcome the terrorism."

Asked if she'd been studying about patriotism, Davis said, "I've been taking history classes and observed and come to appreciate where I live by studying other countries."

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, "Our school came together and made mini banners to send to the New York firefighters and police. We've had many fundraisers to raise money to help cope with the situation," Davis said.

Popp's father, Chief Petty Officer Douglas Popp, is in charge of the pilots' dining facility aboard the Kennedy. "I miss him very much and I wish he were here," the young Popp said. "He's missing all my baseball games and wrestling matches."

However, he said, "I think it's really great that we can be an independent country, and I'd like to keep it that way.

"We've learned about the different kinds of government and we're a democracy," Popp continued. "That means we can vote and have rights like freedom of religion. Some countries don't have the freedoms we have."

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