CRESTVIEW — Beside a dusty running track, the U.S. Army soldiers spanned out into a hoard of second graders, looking just as at home as they do training for combat on dusty battlefields thousands of miles away.
The 11 soldiers from 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne)’s 1st Battalion took a break from their usual work Wednesday to attend the first Dash with Dads event at Antioch Elementary School.
About 40% of students at the school have a parent who serves in the military. When fathers are invited to the school many can’t come due to deployments or other work obligations.
The soldiers were there to serve as stand-in dads for the second-grade class.
“Our military population is huge, so when we ask dads to come in a lot of them can’t come,” said Kelli Sanders, principal of Antioch Elementary. “It’s wonderful to have people here to stand in for them. We appreciate this so much.”
The soldiers — some who have kids of their own, some who don’t — jumped right in, meeting the students and learning about their lives. They mingled through the crowd of about 85 second graders, giving fist bumps and high fives and pumping the kids up for the laps they were about to run. One young girl whose dad was deployed cried when a soldier introduced himself and asked if he could jog with her.
“We always think about the sacrifices the men make when they deploy,” Sanders said. “But even I didn’t use to understand or think about everything the wives and families have to sacrifice as well.”
When the event began, the soldiers raced after the kids as they sprinted the first leg of their laps — apparently, second graders don’t know the art of pacing quite yet — and then trotted or walked with them around the rest.
They lined kids up for foot races, pretended to launch football passes and told jokes. As the event continued and more kids realized what the soldiers were there for, they joined in, talking to them and playing.
For the final lap, the soldiers picked kids up and ran them across the finish line in their arms.
“What we do for work, it’s aggressive, it’s go go go,” said Master Sgt. Ezekiel Gomez, one of the soldiers who attended the event. “It’s nice to see these guys out here interacting with the kids, showing this other side.”
Chief Warrant Officer David Edwards said he also appreciated seeing all the other parents who were able to attend and how they embraced the kids who didn’t have parents there, including them in their laps and conversations.
He said the event was meaningful for both the kids and the soldiers.
“Crestview and the area as a whole have embraced 7th Group into this community, and we’re glad to have any opportunity to give back,” he said. “But by the end, all the service members got as much out of it as we thought we were giving to the kids. We were all out there acting like kids ourselves, enjoying it as much as they were.”