When American helicopter pilots in Iraq saw children — and weren't busy flying patients to the hospital or to the Baghdad airport — they'd throw down candy to them.
Sealed in plastic bags, a good portion of it came from students at Willow Springs Elementary. These students also corresponded with Alexandria resident Dr. Gene Delaune, 38, a major in the Air Force Reserves, while he served in Baghdad from mid-July to November.
"It was a neat diversion, and I shared the letters with the others," said Delaune. "It makes you feel like you have a little contact with people back home."
IT ALL CAME about because Delaune and Willow Springs parent Diane Mortiere are a doctor and nurse, respectively, in the emergency room of George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. Her sons attend Willow Springs, and a teacher there, Deb Brink, heard her talk about Delaune's work in Iraq and wanted to involve her students.
Stationed at Baghdad International Airport, Delaune made sure that all the injured and ill patients leaving Iraq were stable enough to fly to the Air Force hospital in Ramstein, Germany, for further treatment. While he was there, sixth-graders in Brink's class, third-graders in teacher Ann Potter's class and fifth-graders in teacher Cathy McBride's class each wrote him letters.
Mortiere bought candy, and the students put together 150 small bags for the helicopter medics. Added Delaune: "I also gave the candy, in person, to children in a village on the outskirts of Baghdad."
In return, he sent American flags that were flown over Baghdad to Mortiere's four children and to each of the three classes that wrote to him. And when he returned home, he went to Willow Springs to tell the students about his time in Iraq and show them slides and souvenirs.
Afterwards, the children talked about their letters and Delaune's visit. "I told him about my two cats and that my favorite color is blue," said fifth-grader Molly Green, 10. "And I told him I wouldn't be brave enough to go over to Iraq like he did, and how brave the military people were to go and fight for our freedom."
She also wrote that she likes to swim and draw and that she had two hermit crabs, but they died. "He said he was really sad about my hermit crabs and his favorite color was blue, too," said Molly. "It felt good writing to him so I could get to know him better. And I thought it was really cool that he came [to school]. He gave every child 250 dinars — [Iraqi dollars] — and each class an American flag and an Iraqi flag."
KYLE BOSWELL, 10, wrote that he plays soccer and basketball and asked how things were going in Iraq. He didn't really expect to hear back from Delaune "because I thought he was gonna be too busy," but a month later, he got a reply. Said Kyle: "He said he likes those sports, too, and that it was pretty hot and dry there."
Patrick Mortiere, 10, wrote that his SYA soccer team won a championship game. "I told him our teacher's really nice, and I asked him what the temperature was there; he said '140 degrees,'" said Patrick. "I asked what the food was like, and he said it was OK, sort of. He opened up an MRE [meals, ready to eat] when he came here."
"He said he's glad he can take a shower, now that he's back home," continued Patrick. "And I really feel good about sending the candy. The children had never seen that type, before."
Classmate Allison Crook, 10, wrote that she was on the swim team, just moved here from Tennessee and liked her new school. She asked Delaune if he liked Iraq. "I didn't think he was gonna write to everyone, so I was happy to get his letter," she said. "He told me he worked in the hospital there and treated everything from rashes to amputations. He said they had a lot of patients, each day."
Allison said each student sent two bags of candy — "lollipops, Starbursts and stuff — with their letters. "He told us that people all over the U.S. started sending candy to the Iraqi kids," she said. "He said they liked the candy."
"I was excited to meet him in person and know he was back," she added. "He showed us pictures he took, so we got to see where he slept and worked and what the inside of the planes looked like. He also showed us a faucet and part of a chandelier from a palace."
SIXTH-GRADER Elizabeth Eldrup, 11, wrote that she likes horseback riding and wants her own horse.
"I asked him was his stomach queasy when he first saw blood when he first became a doctor, and I asked if he collected anything," she said. "He said he wasn't queasy and didn't collect anything. It was interesting meeting him in person. He was tall and was a really good speaker — going into detail about his slides and what he did [in Iraq]. He said [former dictator] Saddam Hussein [captured this week by American forces] had over 100 palaces."
As for the candy, Elizabeth learned that the Iraqi children initially weren't sure what it was. But once they tasted it, they liked it. "It was fun writing because you learned a lot of new stuff," she said.
Joe Andrews, 12, told Delaune he loves playing basketball and wants to become a pro. "I asked him what sports he liked to play, and I told him my favorite subject was math," said Joe. "He said he also liked math in school and liked to bicycle and rollerskate. And he showed us some cool souvenirs from Iraq, like a bullet that was already used."
Michael Misleh, 12, wrote about his brother and sister, Matthew and Michelle, and dog Sheba. He said Delaune wore his Air Force dress uniform when he visited Willow Springs.
"He showed us what he ate [in Iraq] and passed it around," said Michael. "He showed us a Coke can written half in Arabic and half in English, and a whole bunch of neat pictures he took of helicopters, his patients and where he ate and slept."
"I thought it was really neat that he came to see us and that he went to Iraq and did that — it was part of history," added Michael. "He also showed us a picture of a golden gun and a palace bathroom all made out of gold. I learned a lot."
NIKKI JOHNSON, 11, wrote Delaune about her two kittens and blind and diabetic dog, Meeko. She also asked why he joined the Air Force Reserves. "He said he wanted to because it paid for his school, and he said we should get a seeing-eye dog for my dog," she said. "I felt proud to send the candy, but also jealous because that's the kind I like — Bottle Caps, Sweet Tarts and Tootsie Rolls."
Delaune enjoyed meeting the students, noting that, when he was their age, he "didn't have an understanding of things outside the U.S., so this was a good history lesson for them. They learned a little about Iraq, and it might spark their interest in world events in the future."