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Fort Riley Children Remember 9/11 With Freedom Walk

By Anna Morelock
American Forces Press Service

FORT RILEY, Kan., Sept. 12, 2006 – The voices of more than 500 Ware Elementary School “Bears” chimed together chanting “U-S-A,” “We love America” and other patriotic slogans yesterday as they paraded through the McClellan Heights housing area here waving flags and banners during the school’s Freedom Walk.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Students from Fort Riley’s Ware Elementary School walk through the post’s McClellan Heights housing area during the Sept. 11 Freedom Walk. Photo by Anna Morelock

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The students and teachers walked to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists’ attacks and to honor soldiers fighting in the global war on terrorism.

Ware Elementary Principal Deb Gustafson said she knew the school couldn’t let the day go by unrecognized. Every one of the school’s students is the child of one if not two active-duty soldiers.

“We were looking for a way to remember today in a positive manner,” Gustafson said. “It’s a very historic day, and it should not go unrecognized. However, it’s also a very tragic day and can be met with a lot of drama and tension.”

When searching for a way to commemorate the day, Family Support Coordinator Pat Olmstead came across the Freedom Walk concept on the Defense Department’s America Supports You Web site. Gustafson said school officials thought a Freedom Walk would be the perfect way for students to recall the day in a positive way “and … to support the boots that are on the ground in Iraq and in Afghanistan and the ones that responded to the tragic events of 9/11.”

With the help of the Junction City High School Band and ROTC cadets, the Fort Riley Fire Department and soldiers from 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery, plans for the parade were put into action.

The commemoration began yesterday morning as a cannon fired and the Freedom Walk began. The students, flanked by soldiers and teachers leading them in patriotic cheers and chants, walked a mile-long course through the housing area where most of them live. Parents and community members lined the walkways along the route, some with video cameras and flags. Several had tears in their eyes.

“You know, as we think about remembering today, our kindergarteners were born five years ago,” Gustafson said, “so they have no memory of 9/11 other than what they’re being told or what the see in the media. Even our oldest students were only five or six years old at the time.”

Kaileigh Solis, a second-grader at Ware Elementary School whose father is an active-duty soldier, said she doesn’t remember watching the events of five years ago unfold on television. She learned about them from her teacher at school.

“I think it was really important to me,” Solis said of the Freedom Walk, “because when (I heard that) the towers fell down, I felt sad.”

For another Ware student, fourth-grader Kevin Giles, the walk meant more about freedom and safety. “I feel real happy that it’s a free country and how we can be free and you don’t have to worry about getting hurt and stuff,” he said.

Giles also said it made him feel good to see the spectators that lined the parade route because he knows they appreciated living in a free country.

Teaching the students who don’t remember the day at all or were very young when it happened is a challenge for the teachers.

“(Sept. 11) was a monumental day in our history, and we can’t ignore it,” Gustafson said. “It has the potential to be a very, very sad and depressing day as you think about what occurred five years ago, but we want to turn it into more of a supportive day -- support for all of our families who were impacted.”

As a teacher and educator, Gustafson said the challenge is to help ensure children understand what happened on Sept. 11 and remember those lost, but to do so in a positive manner.

In addition to the school’s military students, many of its teachers are military spouses and feel very close personal ties to the Sept. 11 events, the military and the war on terror, she noted.

She advised teachers to steer clear of giving students too many details about Sept. 11 that might upset them unless the students asked.

“We’re just going to talk about the Freedom Walk and the fact that we’re supporting our moms and dads who are in the Army and who are at war,” Gustafson said.

If the students did ask questions, Gustafson said, she told the teachers to keep their answers factual. “Answer them directly and honestly with the facts, but … don’t get into too much of the tragedy and the death and the drama. Just keep it factual,” she said.

Fourth-grader Noah Kelly watched the events on television five years ago. For him, participating in the walk was fun, but also important “so that we could honor the soldiers who serve the Army and all the people who helped in 9/11 that died,” he said.

On the five-year anniversary of the attacks, Gustafson said, the most important thing for the teachers to instill in the students is the fact that they do everything possible to keep the students safe. “We do not want them to worry about terrorist acts,” she said. “We don’t want them worrying that something like that can happen to them.

“The Army is dad’s job,” Gustafson said she tells the students. “The Army is mom’s job. Your job is being a ‘Ware Bear.’ Your job is to show up every day here and learn. That’s your mission.”

(Anna Morelock works for the Fort Riley Public Affairs Office.)

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