By Candace Birkelbach
Killeen Daily Herald
The sounds of soldiers and students shouting "Aieeeya" echoed through the cafeteria of Willow Springs Elementary School on Wednesday morning.
The school held a farewell ceremony to honor soldiers in the 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, who will leave for Iraq soon and stay for 15 months.
The squadron, also called the Long Knives, serves as Willow Spring's sponsor for the Adopt-a-School program.
Principal Linda Olson said the Long Knives already have had an incredible influence on students and staffers at Willow Springs.
"You know what democracy is," Olson told the soldiers during the ceremony. "You help show students that they belong and matter (in our country)."
Olson commented on the immense impact the military has had on the school and community. When she asked how many people in the audience have ties to someone in the military, about 75 percent of them stood. About one-third of the attendees stood when asked if they knew someone who would be deployed overseas soon.
Jeff Harford, Long Knife standardization instructional pilot, said the regiment looks forward to maintaining contact for the duration of their service in Iraq.
"We appreciate the fact that Willow Springs has accepted us into their home," Harford said after the ceremony.
He said the Long Knives plan on keeping in touch with the students through letters, e-mail and videos.
The guest speaker for the event was retired Col. Ralph Gauer, who served as a soldier for 32 years, Olson said.
Gauer talked enthusiastically about how students can honor the soldiers who serve them.
He suggested that all Willow Springs students sign a large piece of paper, about 50 feet wide, and send it to the deployed soldiers at Thanksgiving time.
Gauer urged students to draw pictures and write notes on the paper to let soldiers know the students are thinking about them.
"Tell them you love them," Gauer said. "Heroes are our neighbors."
About 30 soldiers attended the ceremony, which included vocal performances, a drill team show and posting of the colors.
The Ellison High School Emeralds wowed students. For the finale, the girls jumped and landed in the splits, a move that set the audience screaming and cheering.
Solo performer Stacy Tarvin sang "A Hero Lies In You" to the soldiers, and the Ellison High School Chamber Singers harmonized choruses of patriotic songs.
Parents, family members and district administrators also came to show their support for the local soldiers.
Contact Candace Birkelbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7553