I know I promised this post a few days ago but I've been so focused on COL Evan getting better that I just haven't wanted to post until today. I am so thankful Evan IS feeling better. I'm also thankful for all of the prayers that you all have been saying for him.
Now on to this post.
In October 2007 I wrote this post about Lakeland Elementary School donating socks for the Sky Soldiers of the 173rd, 2-503 who were deployed to northeastern Afghanistan. I urge you to take the time to read the post and to learn about the amazing students, faculty and staff at Lakeland Elementary School.
For several months we've been attempting to put together a weekend when several of the 173rd, 2-503 Soldiers could come to Memphis to visit Lakeland Elementary School to say "thank you." While I missed not getting to have a whole "Herd" of the guys here I was thrilled when SSG Ryan Pitts was able to come from Walter Reed Army Medical Center this past weekend.
Ryan arrived on Saturday. That afternoon Frank and Nancy Rouse came over to meet Ryan and visit with him. Frank is a Vietnam Veteran who served in the 173rd, 2-503. If you don't know the history of the 173rd you can get a "taste" of the Brigade's storied past here. Nancy is the principal of Lakeland Elementary School. I won't bore you with the details of how I came to know Nancy and Frank but this is one tiny little world my friends. Frank and Nancy are members of both the Patriot Guard Riders and Rolling Thunder. They are wonderful, wonderful people and great Americans.
After a few hours of visiting, eating and hoisting a few beers Frank received a call from a Veteran friend of his. Long story short it was soon after that call that Frank and Nancy loaded Ryan up in their truck for a quick 40 minute ride to Mississippi to "attend" a Hooters swimsuit competition. I was invited but scantily clad young ladies prancing about isn't my idea of a fun evening. I know, I'm old. Seems a fine time was had by all.
One Sunday Ryan and I went to visit St. Jude patient Evan Pertile, his mom, Nana and some of their family friends. We had such a wonderful visit with them.
Monday morning rolled around and we were off to Lakeland Elementary School. We arrived in time for the morning Pledge of Allegiance, thought for the day and announcements which are done via the PA system from the principal's office. Mrs. Rouse has students come to her office each morning to lead the pledge and to give the thought for the day.
The students did an EXCELLENT job!
After that was over Nancy escorted Ryan and me to the cafeteria where Ryan was scheduled to address and thank all of the fifth grade classes. The reason for selecting that group is that one of the fifth graders (fourth grade last school year) raised the most money and/or collected the most socks for the paratroopers. (More on that later in the post). As we walked into the cafeteria I immediately noticed this:
I got a big lump in my throat. Many thanks to the students and to the art department for such a wonderful "welcome" to Ryan. Made me damn proud to be from this area. There were other colorings and drawings on the walls surrounding the opening to the stage area:
After the students were settled in Mrs. Rouse introduced SSG Pitts
SSG Pitts spent a few minutes telling the students a little about himself.
Then he told them how much he and his paratroopers appreciated the socks. He explained about how they were in a location where they didn't have a way to wash their socks; how they hiked many days for miles at a time. He even told them about one day when they hiked 15 miles up and down the mountains of Afghanistan.
He told them the socks were a huge help to them when they were deployed and that all of the Soldiers with him were very grateful for the student's generous donation. He then asked for Harper Wagner to come forward.
SSG Pitts reminded the group that Harper had raised the most money/pairs of socks and had won a pizza party for his class by doing so. Then he gave Harper a 173rd Brigade coin
And a 173rd Brigade flag
After Harper sat down SSG Pitts asked the students if they had any questions. Boy did they have questions. GREAT questions. Question such as, "Did you get much sleep" Ryan's answer was something along the lines of "somedays yes, somedays not so much."
"Did you see any cool animals?" Ryan had to mention the Camel Spider. He explained that it's not really a spider and showed (with his hands) how big they can get. He also mentioned that he had seen a baby snow leopard. That brought ooohs and aaaaahs from the crowd
One student asked about whether Ryan and his buddies had survival training. The student used the proper terminology. I, of course, have no idea what that term is. I don't remember what Ryan's answer was because I was still processing that a fifth grader would know that terminology. Smart kids!
One question to SSG Pitts was if he had ever been shot. Ryan told them he hadn't but that he had been blown up by RPGs and hand grenades. Golly it seems so weird to type that. I'm just amazed at how far along Ryan has come in his recuperation.
The most poplular questions were about jumping. How high were you when you jumped? What do you do if the chute doesn't open? What happens if the reserve chute doesn't open? Were you afraid to jump? And there were questions about the food, why Ryan joined the Army, etc. Really, really good questions all around.
After about 20 or so minutes Mrs Rouse wrapped things up and thanked Ryan for coming. Ryan did an excellent job. There were still probably 20 hands in the air for questions. I'm sure they were good ones, too. Mrs. Rouse then gave Ryan a huge bag of letters that the students had written to him and his buddies.
I had to snag a photo of Nancy, Ryan and Frank. It was really nice of Frank to come out to support Ryan.
Frank and Ryan did some of that man/Warrior/Paratrooper/Herd/Sky Soldier talk for a few minutes before Frank had to leave
After Frank left Nancy, Ryan and I were standing near the stage chatting. The students were still in the cafeteria and were signing each others yearbooks. One of the students approached Ryan and asked if he would mind signing the yearbook. Ryan, of course, said he would
And then...............the line formed
Ryan signed and signed
And signed. The line was from the stage all the way to the back of the cafeteria. For the longest time it never seemed to get any shorter.
After 30 minutes or so I told Ryan I would go stand at the back of the line and not let anyone else get in the line. I tried. I REALLY, REALLY tried. But those kids are SO cute and I kept letting "just one more" get in line in front of me. At one point Ryan looked up and asked, "is the line getting shorter or longer?" So I only let two more in and then I finally said, "sorry, we have to go." As we were walking out a little girl came up to Ryan and asked him to sign her yearbook. Ryan looked at me and I grinned. Of course he signed it!
I couldn't help but think to myself that those kids have no idea about the Soldier who signed their books. I know that's just perfectly fine with Ryan.
So we left the school and went back to my house. Frank came over a couple of hours later and the two Sky Soldiers drank beer, told war stories and visited all afternoon. What an incredible treat for me to be able to listen in. Very few people can tell a story the way Frank Rouse can. At one point Frank asked if I didn't have something to do. I'm crazy about Frank so I took the hint and left "the boys" alone for a while. After school was out Nancy came over and had dinner with us then I took Ryan to the airport. I really appreciate Nancy and Frank spending so much time with Ryan during his visit. I had to giggle to myself when they exchanged phone numbers.
What a wonderful weekend. God has given me more blessings than any one human deserves. I am so thankful.