Soldiers of the 21st Cavalry Brigade kicked off career day at Nolanville Elementary School in October by landing an Apache helicopter in the field behind the school as children waved American flags and chanted “U-S-A.”
These sort of opportunities are available to school districts in Central Texas because of their proximity to Fort Hood and many are taking full advantage.
For nearly two decades, Fort Hood units have “adopted” area schools to volunteer their time to children and support education through the Adopt-A-School program.
“What a wonderful opportunity for the kids to be able to see their Adopt-A-Unit bring out a helicopter and explain how to maintain it,” said Jason Johnson, Fort Hood school liaison officer who oversees the adoption program, talking about 21st Cavalry supporting Nolanville’s Career Day.
This is just one example of the many opportunities provided to students through the program, which aims to contribute military resources and services to schools in order to nurture the intellectual, emotional, social and physical growth of children in the greater Fort Hood area.
Johnson said the collateral benefits include good relationships and increased awareness of the military.
“You have so many military-connected families that when soldiers come to their schools, they see it as their mom or dad’s friends. It’s comforting to the kiddos,” he said.
Johnson is in his third year with the program and in that time Fort Hood participation has grown from 75 units to 90 units working in eight independent school districts, including Killeen, Copperas Cove, Florence, Temple, Gatesville, Belton and Salado. Private and charter schools are also part of the program, and more than 20,000 volunteer hours were recorded for the 2011-2012 school year.
“I would also say each adoption is unique,” Johnson said. “The units work with the school to assist with whatever goals that school has.”
At Eastern Hills Middle School in Harker Heights, soldiers from its adopted unit, III Corps’ Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, are out tutoring twice a week. The soldiers also help with special events and field days and often serve as the guest speaker for testing pep rallies and at National Junior Honor Society inductions, said Robert Burns, curriculum specialist and liaison between the school and the unit.
“They’ve always been there for us,” he said. “It’s a positive thing for us and the community.”
Burns is in his fifth year at the middle school and has seen the program grow from hardly any soldiers on campus, to the Phantom Battalion winning the award of best adopted unit twice.
“Not only do (soldiers) come to the school, the school comes to them to see their life and what they do,” Burns said. “This is a military town and all too often, the kids hear about Fort Hood, but this puts a human face to soldiers.”
The most notable event on this spectrum is the Day in the Life of a Soldier field day, where III Corps hosts the students on Sadowski Field.
Eastern Hills has 768 students in sixth through eighth grade and about 35 percent of those kids are military dependents, said Jamie Blassingame, school principal. So while some students know about military culture and serving, many don’t.
Ja’quan Tillis, an Eastern Hills seventh-grader, receives tutoring from soldiers in his math class.
“It’s the only time I see someone from Fort Hood,” he said.
The chance to work one-on-one with someone has helped him understand math, particularly while learning to divide fractions, Ja’quan said.
“He had a way that he had been taught and he taught me,” the seventh-grader said.
The same goes for teachers and faculty. Many have their only military interactions with their adopted unit.
“Especially for the teachers that come in here not familiar with the military when they come here ... they get the same benefit of understanding. They get to know the military up close,” Blassingame said. “We talk about the military and how important it is to us and serving your country. When you know a soldier personally ... that relationship piece is huge.”
Burns said he has attended a battalion run with Phantom Battalion and several teachers got to attend a live-fire exercise. Anytime III Corps hosts a blood drive or is trying to increase recycling, Burns gets the word out to teachers and Eastern Hills does what they can to help.
Fort Hood’s Johnson said this is exactly how the relationship should be.
“We’re all part of the greater community. This is where we live. It’s wonderful to contribute to the community where we reside,” he said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”