JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
More than 175 kids in full body armor cut a striking scene Aug. 11, 2016, at the JBSA-Lackland Military Family & Readiness Center’s Operation Junior Expeditionary Team event, an annual mock deployment where military children get a taste of what life is like for their parents downrange.
The event was held in the Inter-American Air Force Academy’s hangar at JBSA-Lackland and started with participants going through an in-processing station where each child was assigned to one of three teams: Panthers, Bobcats or Eagles.
From there, each child got a green OPJET T-shirt, dog tags and "official" deployment orders.
Joanna Rios, JBSA-Lackland Youth Program director, was one of the OPJET chaperones and he said he was pleased to see strong enthusiasm from the kids in attendance.
"Once they divided up into teams, they started cheering and chanting," Rios noted. "They just had a blast. They were engaged, asked questions and just tuned in. This OPJET was just above and beyond."
After dividing up into teams, kids were tasked out on a rotational set of activities that represented the diverse responsibilities and challenges of deployed life, said Tech Sgt. Oscar Gonzalez, Military Family & Readiness Center NCO.
"Everything we do at this event is something that their moms and dads go through," Gonzalez explained. "For them to be here – living it – just drives this home."
At one station, kids clambered up the ramp of a C-130 Hercules aircraft. Marveling at the size of the cargo space, kids listened to IAAFA volunteers who demonstrated how the plane could stock and transport large tanks and jeeps.
"It’s not Southwest Airlines, it’s not Delta," Gonzalez joked. "But this aircraft – and these comfortable bucket seats – is how a lot of us have to travel."
At another activity, children got first-hand cardiopulmonary resuscitation – or CPR – and first aid instruction from medical personnel while, at other station, they walked through some basic physical training exercises, were weighed and tried on sets of body armor.
Explosive ordinance disposal teams participated in OPJET.
"We were really excited for that," Gonzalez explained. "EOD had their emergency response vehicle here; our participants were all lined up to watch them work."
For all the armor, exercise and personalized gear, the centerpiece of the event was a trip to an IAFFA flight simulator. Each individual was able to work with flight controls, speak to flight instructors and walk through the basic tasks of flying an airplane.
"IAAFA came through big time with the flight simulator this year," Gonzalez said. "The kids loved that."
While the OPJET experience is designed to be fun, instruction is also a key component. Across all stations, volunteers from across JBSA-Lackland stood by to answer questions.
"It was just so great to have volunteers who taught these kids so thoughtfully," Rios said. "Our kids were asking such great age-appropriate questions and the volunteers were able to put everything in layman’s terms."
As the kids milled through each station, Rios and Gonzalez noted how the children began to appreciate what deployed life was actually like for their mothers and fathers.
"This isn’t just a few hours for kids to run around," Gonzalez said. "We kept it interactive and all these kids were really grasping what they were taught."
"All I heard was, ‘this is awesome!’" Rios added. "The kids kept going on and on about how grateful they were to be here."
At the conclusion of the event, all the kids gathered for a final debriefing where they learned a lesson just as valuable as CPR, flight tactics or physical regimen.
That lesson, Rios noted, is that family strength is also an important factor in the morale of deployed parents.
"This is a real world exercise," Rios said. "OPJET isn’t just teaching about what deployment is like. OPJET is also meant to help show children that they are the strength behind their parents."