By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
The students of Manor Middle School packed into the gym Thursday, all wearing the same red T-shirts, cheering and screaming with excitement.
As the smoke machine came to life, their cheers grew louder and the guests of honor came bursting through the haze - the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery Regiment, 41st Fires Brigade.
The school came together to honor its Adopt-A-School Unit before soldiers deploy to Afghanistan on Saturday for the next year.
Soldiers have dedicated their time to the more than 660 students at Manor through mentor programs, tutoring and directing traffic before and after school.
"The soldiers love it," said Lt. Col. Patrovick Everett, battalion commander. "We are there every single time they call."
Students showed their appreciation for the soldiers with performances by the school's dancers and cheerleaders, the recitation of a poem written by a student and a group cheer: "You're my hero; you make me proud."
The name of each soldier in the battalion hung from the walls of the gym along with a painted sign that read, "First Strike does it right." The names and the sign will move into the cafeteria until all the soldiers come home next year, said Principal Joseph Welch.
"We want to make sure you know you have our support every step of the way and we look forward to their return to us," Welch said.
Everett took a moment to address the more than a quarter of Manor students who are military dependents, trying to explain why parents choose to be soldiers.
"I have no doubt in my mind that each of you have seen a parent leave for a deployment ... They don't do it for the money, or for the fame or recognition. They don't put this uniform on because they love it. They do it so children can have a safe, enjoyable life and be whoever they want to be ... This is the reason we protect freedom."
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.