MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, ROMANIA
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – Big brothers and sisters come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, characters and complexions. Turns out they also come in all U.S. services and duty uniforms; in Romania at least, brothers and sisters in arms also serve as surrogate “brothers and sisters” for children who need them.
Soldiers and airmen serving at MK Air Base in support of the newly established passenger transit center joined Marines of Black Sea Rotational Force-14 in support of a program that unites U.S. service members with area children in need.
Marine 2nd Lt. Danielle Dixon, the BSRF public affairs officer and a driving force behind the “United Hands Romania” effort since early fall, described the program as mutually beneficial for participating children and service members.
“It allows them to get out and experience the Romanian culture at a deeper level,” she said. “The kids also benefit. It’s obvious when a child recognizes a Marine, calls him by name and immediately rushes up and hugs him that he’s made a difference in that kid’s life. A lot of these kids don’t have a strong male role model in their lives and it’s great when a Marine can come in and show them an example of a strong, confident and compassionate man.”
Dixon and Marine volunteers circulated among three principle and 11 total placement centers around MK and Constanta during the fall and winter, touching the lives of some 350 area children; the small enduring Army and Air Force contingent operating from MK Air Base, meanwhile, conducted engagements on a modest scale. Soldiers and airmen joined the effort in larger numbers with the arrival of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command’s Regional Support Element and supporting organizations, mostly in January. Around 10 soldiers and airmen accompanied a slightly larger number of Marines during visits to the Micul Rotterdam child placement center in Constanta in January and early February.
While engagements sometimes include distribution of gifts and care packages – especially at Christmastime – they more often consist of simple visits, play and, notwithstanding the language barrier, communication.
“They play ball games and yard games, different contests – like ‘limbo’ or obstacle courses – and running games like ‘tag,’” said Ioana Draghici, a teacher and “house mother” at the Micul Rotterdam facility from Constanta. “Indoors, they play chess and board games, concentration and musical chairs. When they know the military will come, the children will practice the games ahead of time specifically so they can play with them.”
The 70 children who live in the Micul Rotterdam facility range in age from 3 to 18 and occupy five houses in Constanta. They live at facility houses, study and attend school during the week, supervised and mentored by a small but supportive team of care givers. The children, some orphans but most members of needy area families, receive visitors, including friends, relatives and sometimes service members, on weekends. House mothers strongly encourage military visits, which provide children an opportunity to interact with strong role models, learn about American culture – not to mention English vocabulary – and, most importantly, enjoy the company of supportive, caring adults who take an interest in their lives and encourage their aspirations.
The volunteers, predominantly young men who share their enjoyment of spirited athletic contests, horseplay, and lighthearted games and banter, provide the children an often badly needed opportunity to bond with strong, affirmative, kind-hearted brother and father figures.
“The military has already made a big impact on the way the kids interact,” said Aldea Angelica, a teacher, psychologist and house mother with the center. “They encourage their creativity and also their motor skills through play and games, and they also help emotionally. The example they set of discipline and planning is very clearly expressed and apparent in the children’s behavior.”
“I’ve always admired the American military because they have a strong personality and sense of discipline,” Draghici added. “Their personality has already started to influence the children for the better. They set an example in small ways, like following a schedule and organizing themselves. They’re always asking when the military will come back to visit, and that’s a very good thing.”
“There’s a tendency to imitate the good example the military sets,” Angelica said. “They can see some of the positive results when you set goals and organize to achieve your aims. The military shows them an example of achievement and purpose. It’s not just talk – it’s real life.”
Military participants enjoy the visits at least as much as the children.
“It’s fun to just hang out with them,” said Spc. Thomas P. Shields, a medic with the 421st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 30th Medical Brigade, 21st TSC and a native of La Crescent, Minn. “I really got bombarded during the snowball fight, but it was fun. It’s interesting how well we can communicate non-verbally despite the language barrier.”
“I had a great time,” added Air Force Master Sgt. Shauna Lolley, a command post controller from Mobile, Ala., whose own daughter recently turned 8. “Having a child close in age to many of the kids at the center, I felt at home. It was a great experience.”
Participants believe the visits yield educational, cultural and even diplomatic benefits.
“You get that face time with the community, and it makes a big difference,” Dixon said. “It shows the compassionate and human side of our forces. And you develop these certain bonds with the kids … It touches a special part of you.”
The opportunity to spend time with the children, the Inverness, Fla., resident added, “has been an indescribably wonderful opportunity for not only the service members but the kids as well. We’ve learned a lot from them and I’m hoping the same is true for the kids.”
“I think it was beneficial for everyone,” said Sgt. Michael Currin of the 21st TSC Regional Support Element, a native of Farmington, N.M. “We had an opportunity to get out into the local community and reinforce the idea that we’re not just staying behind the fence doing a mission – we’re going out into the community and building a real partnership. And I also think you get a unique perspective from children. We’re used to working with adults, but you learn a lot about the culture and the people when you interact with the kids.”
“The visit was a huge opportunity to engage the community,” Lolley added. “This showed them we’re about more than just our own military operations – we care about the local community as well.”
Volunteer efforts also yield intangible rewards for many participants.
“I feel like this is helping the kids – it brightens their day,” Shields said. “This is a little bit of selfless service – a way to live out the Army Values.”
“It’s the little things that make a difference – like snowball fights and games of tag,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas DeBatt, a charismatic light armored vehicle crewman with an infectious smile and a natural gift for interaction with children. “I try to enjoy some of the same things they do – they live in the moment and enjoy life to the fullest. I guess I relate to them pretty well because I consider myself a kid at heart.”
“They fill that empty spot left while we’re away from family and friends,” the East Stroudsburg, Pa. native added. “I consider them ‘family’ even if I can’t understand everything they say. A smile is a smile in every language.”
||MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, RO
||EAST STROUDSBURG, PA, US
||FARMINGTON, NM, US
||INVERNESS, FL, US
||LA CRESCENT, MN, US
||MOBILE, AL, US
This work, Sister services combine to care, by SGM Michael Pintagro, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.