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Letters from home

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

A huge red, white and blue “welcome” sign greeted Air Force Capt. Todd Gibson as he walked into Karin Wesley’s third-grade classroom.

The students wrote to Gibson while he was stationed in Balad, Iraq, with his Air National Guard unit.

Since he couldn’t write back, he decided to make a surprise appearance.

As he walked into the Waccamaw Elementary class wearing a khaki flight suit, students craned their necks and stared. They were all familiar strangers, but it didn’t take long for the pen pals to get comfortable.

“Hi guys, I’m Todd,” he said. “Thank you guys for your letters. I know it probably took a long time to write them.”

The class learned about Gibson from Anita Ahalt, the grandmother of Brandon Ahalt, one of the students, and Gibson’s great-aunt. They started writing him early last month.

“I know how difficult it is for him to be away from home while serving in Iraq,” Anita Ahalt said. “I had thought all of our grandchildren would write to him, but then I figured this would be a good learning tool.”

Gibson wasn’t in Iraq too long after he received the letters, but he said he read them over and over. He even found time to get a flag that was flown over his base for the students.

During his last days there, he recorded a video to answer students’ questions.

As the lights dimmed, the students watched as a scruffier version of Gibson appeared on the room’s interactive whiteboard.

He started the video by describing his living conditions. It’s hot, dusty and dirty, he said. He slept in a bunk bed during the day wearing foam ear plugs so he wouldn’t hear the roar of jet engines as they rolled down the nearby runway.

At night, he flew missions and returned at breakfast to eat eggs, and for fun, he hung out with the other men in his squadron.

“We have a lot of fun together. We work hard and play hard,” Gibson said.

He also told them on the video that he missed his family back in Annapolis, Md.

One student asked if his family went with him to Iraq.

“I don’t think they want to,” the 31-year-old said as he looked over at his wife, Michelle, who joined him on his classroom visit.

Gibson showed pictures of the barren landscape and his F-16 jet at the base. It was the same base where Saddam Hussein kept his jets, so Gibson and his buddies explored the junk yards on the base when they were bored.

Ironically, it was a base the U.S. bombed in the first Gulf War, Gibson told students. The hangar where he kept his plane had a big hole where a U.S. bomb ripped through the cement.

Gibson had to wear a bright yellow belt whenever he walked around the base so he would be visible to the people driving vehicles and operating machinery.

When he’s in the F-16, he wears a helmet with a visor, radio and oxygen mask, which he demonstrated in the video.

“Can you hear me?” he said in a muffled voice when he covered his mouth with a thick black face guard.

The students giggled.

“I took these pictures when I was flying,” he said as green-tinted images came up on the screen.

Gibson filmed those through his night-vision goggles.

The landscape dotted with lights and buildings spurred more questions from the students.

“Are there Iraqi children there who are hungry?” Kalyn Gardner asked.

“I think there are, but I think since we’ve been there, they’re getting what they need,” he said.

“What’s the most dangerous part of being in Iraq?” Breanna Salvino asked.

“Getting shot at,” Gibson said.

His response triggered one of the most popular questions; did he ever get shot or did he ever shoot at people?

“We basically just made a lot of noise and tried to scare the bad guys away,” Gibson said. “I’ve been shot at, but I don’t think anything hit.”

Boys in the back of the class, enthralled with the idea of shooting guns, began to make machine gun noises.

The students peppered Gibson with questions for about 30 minutes. He grinned and patiently answered each one.

When it was time to leave, students clapped, and Gibson shook each student’s hand on his way out the door.

Although he’s not going overseas again for about a year, Gibson said he’d keep in touch with the kids.

The class will get a package of flight suit patches in the next few weeks, he said. It will also include the flag that flew over his base in Iraq.

“I think this was good for them,” Anita Ahalt said.

Brandon Ahalt called his cousin’s visit “cool,” and bashfully posed for family pictures while his classmates looked on.

“What’s the funnest part about being in the military,” he asked Gibson.

“This is fun,” Gibson said. “Getting to share with people what you do when I get to come home and getting to see what’s going on. It’s being a part of something bigger than yourself.”

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