WESTFIELD, Mass. (104th Fighter Wing Public Affairs) – On the last day of school with the air full of excitement for summer Col. Tom Bladen, 104th Fighter Wing operations group commander, entered the art-filled halls at Highland Elementary School on his way to visit 8-12-year-old students. The visit was to engage with refugee students who have been in Massachusetts for three months to three years.
“Bringing a friendly face to the classroom, to help humanize the pilots was my thought,” said Patricia Wysocki, a teacher for English language learners for the past seven years at Highland Elementary and an adjunct professor at Westfield State University. I wanted the children to know the pilot’s mission is to keep us safe. Your visit was everything I hoped it would be.”
The visit served as a means to help the children understand why they hear the loud screeching F-15 jets flying overhead when playing outside their school and homes.
“Visiting the students was an incredible experience,” said Bladen. “It was rewarding to be able to draw the connective tissue between the American way of life, the Air National Guard, and the 104 FW. Specifically many of the children came from a hostile or violent environment that was often created by their government. I enjoyed the opportunity to explain our country is built on protecting freedoms for its people, which includes them now, and how the 104FW is a vital piece to protection.”
Wysocki reached out to a non-teaching friend to discuss the reactions the children were having to the aircraft flying overhead. She was put in touch with Senator Don Humason’s office and her request for a visitor from the 104th FW flourished into a life changing event. Wysocki’s teaching career spans 36 years.
“These students have lived in war-torn places,” Wysocki said. “Their experiences with military planes, have not been positive. As their English second language (ESL) teacher, part of tour work, is to help them adapt to life in the USA. We noticed their physical responses to the sound of planes flying over our school. Their reactions range from a fearful look to full blown panic responses, crying under furniture.”
Wysocki said, “In our efforts to help these students reframe their reaction to flyovers, we began to discuss ideas for a positive experience.”
The students are from Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, and Nepal. They each shared where they were from and how long they had been in the U.S.
Bladen approached the classroom with a fatherly attitude explaining the 104th Fighter Wing mission to the children. He included the wing’s alert mission to rescue other planes needing help.
“My focus talking to the kids was to help explain the mission of helping people and providing protection,” Bladen said.
Bladen explained why the jets are heard so often in the neighborhood.
“Who here likes soccer,” Bladen asked as some of the kids raised their hands. “We practice flying our jets just like practicing soccer is needed to learn and get better.”
A 10-year-old Hadi Al Nassar, was the honoree pilot of the afternoon as Bladen helped him dawn his flight suit and aviator helmet. A smile from cheek to cheek beamed from his face as he stood up next to Bladen. He raised his arm to cheer, and his friends who were surrounding him giggled with excitement.
“Your gear is heavy,” Nassar said.
The students all had a chance to look through the night vision goggles and at the end of the visit the students received a 104th Fighter Wing patch.
“These students and their families are now part of the American society,” said Bladen. “It’s important for them to understand that the 104 FW ultimately exists to serve that society, not to oppress it which was a huge paradigm shift for them.”
Bladen also talked about the opportunities extended from going to school, the community, and his family being a part of the same community as them.
“The children’s faces were serious when the military members walked through the door and by the end the kids’ smiles lit up the room,” Wysocki said.
Bladen said “I think the visit was impactful. Before the visit, many of the students were scared of the jet noise because in their country that noise often meant violence. I felt like we put a face to the 104FW and we were able to assure them it’s different here. I don’t think they’ll be scared anymore and hopefully they have a little pride when they see 104 FW jets flying around Westfield.”
“Tom Bladen was able to bring a positive connection to the F-15 Eagle he flies,” Wysocki said. “The time spent explaining, sharing artifacts and answering the children’s questions through the interpreters, will bring new experiences and help connect knowledge to the flyovers.”
The 104th FW continues to extend support to their local community as a part of their outreach program. One way of being a part of the community is through their regular elementary school classroom visits to engage with the next generation.
Bladen said “My favorite part of the visit was at the end when several of the kids presented drawings and paper airplanes they had made. It made me feel like we had built a connection which was awesome.”
“In my opinion, the most important part of community engagement is building a relationship between the military and civilian populations built on trust-trust that we are 100 percent ready to protect the American way of life and trust we will do it properly in accordance with Federal and State laws,” said Bladen. It’s only through trust that America can thrive. The Guard is uniquely postured to proffer that message because we are the community.”