By Emily Baker
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – To put a smile on the face of a soldier, weary after more than a day of traveling from a combat zone, simply line up dozens of children and give them flags to wave.
"That was cute," 1st Lt. Justin Pavlica, who serves with the 4th Infantry Division's Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said Saturday after returning to Texas from Iraq.
"It's nice to know the little kids appreciate what you do," Pavlica said.
Making the soldiers smile is what Master Sgt. Michael Hatfield and Staff Sgt. Lawrence Cobbins were trying to accomplish when they came up with the idea recently to organize a small parade of children who wave flags and salute soldiers from the 4th Infantry as they run into Starker Gym to be reunited with loved ones after spending a year in Iraq. About 670 soldiers from the 4th Infantry returned Saturday.
Cobbins, a medic who has become the crowd motivator at homecoming ceremonies, noticed children usually run around and play in the gym while they wait for their parents or another family member to return. So, Cobbins and Hatfield thought of a way to keep the children busy and honor returning soldiers at the same time.
Cobbins wanders through the crowd before ceremonies begin and looks for children who are "active and paying attention," he said. Most are eager to participate.
He gives each child a couple of American flags to wave and leads them on a run around the gym while they wave their flags and cheer. Then, he shows them where to stand when the soldiers run in and how to salute properly with the tips of their fingers touching their right eyebrow.
"I thought a father would be proud if he ran in there and saw his child saluting him," Cobbins said. "It's all about the families and the kids, right? And the soldiers. It's all for them."
The 30 or so children Cobbins recruited to be part of the parade Saturday afternoon were hopping up and down as they waited to wave their flags for the soldiers. Some danced to the music blasted by a disc jockey. Proud moms wandered out into the gym to snap photos of their kids waiting to salute.
Adriana Green, 11, led the group behind Cobbins as they ran around the gym and gave the others a cue when to salute.
"I was sitting in the crowd, and (Cobbins) asked if it was something I wanted to do," said Adriana, who was waiting for her stepbrother to return. "It seemed like fun."
Adriana was one of the few who remembered to salute as the soldiers ran in.
After the soldiers had lined up in formation inside the gym, Cobbins corralled the children by the stands so they could see the flag when the national anthem was played. He showed them before the ceremony began how to honor the flag with their right hands over their hearts.
But, as the Star Spangled Banner began to play, the children remembered something about saluting. So, they did, just like their dads and moms and the other soldiers there.
"I saw the little kids, and it was real cute," Pavlica said. "If I were a father, I would think of my kids and be real proud."
Contact Emily Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org