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The kindly face of the military

Published May 9, 2003

CITRUS PARK - At a small desk in the cramped hallway of a gray concrete block school, a baby-faced Army sergeant tells stories of Afghanistan.

He talks of travelers hanging outside of moving vehicles, of a little girl herding cattle taller than she is.

He's out of uniform in jeans and flip-flops. But he has full command of his audience of 6-year-olds, who pepper him with questions.

Are there cars? Are there jails? Toys? Bathrooms?

"You know what the outside looks like?" Sgt. Ovidio Perez II deadpans. "That's your bathroom."


Perez, 32, returned last month to a hero's welcome in Citrus Park. He's part of a wave now celebrated at Tampa International Airport and at MacDill Air Force Base. We rejoice, collectively, as soldiers come home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We're at a point where clearly we have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced in Afghanistan on May 1, the day before Perez's visit to Citrus Park Elementary.

We are, they tell us, in a time of rebuilding Iraq as well.

For Perez, there also is a favor to return to two children in his neighborhood. William and James Hsiung, who attend Citrus Park Elementary, serenaded him at his late-night homecoming with the country tune, God Bless the USA. Hence the Friday morning session of Hearts and Minds 101.

The first-graders don't need to be told Perez is a hero. Support for U.S. troops is so engrained in our consciousness that Lee Greenwood's country hit, remade by Jump 5, has become the anthem of the younger set. In Woodmont, where the Hsiung boys live, patriotic women have tied yellow ribbons on anything not moving.

Perez can't say much about what he did in Afghanistan. Doing so might jeopardize the mission, or the troops still based there, he says.

He can say he was there for seven months, found it fascinating, and yes, got good and tired of Army food.

As he got to know the place, he was struck by the simplicity of day-to-day life.

"You get up every morning and get ready for school," he tells the children. "Kids your age over there, they are tending goats and cows.

"They don't have electricity like you do. If they need fire they use wood, the little sticks on the ground that you'd throw away. Over there, that doesn't go to waste. That's what you cook with, or that's what you heat your house with. So you see kids your age, picking it up."

Their school is a palace, he says, compared to Afghanistan, where children learn in tents.

Where, not too long ago, girls could not study at all.

He describes the head-to-toe burqa that many women still wear.

"I know what that is," one child calls out.

She is the exception. Few have heard of the Taliban, who are but a distant memory even to a lot of American adults. These kids are so young, they barely remember Sept. 11, 2001.

Specifics elude them. Yet they know to give the baby-faced soldier nothing short of reverence.

"Can I have your autograph?" one child asks.

Perez could easily sign autographs all day long.

Instead, he moves from classroom to classroom, taking questions and sharing snapshots.

He describes things they will find incredible - such as a sport called buzkashi, which uses a headless goat as a football.

And he talks of the Afghan children, forming a connection with his wide-eyed audience. He is, perhaps without intending to be, an ambassador to these youngest of civilians. The vast and powerful U.S. military wears a kindly face.

"Kids will be kids, no matter what," Perez tells the children. "They might have to work, they might not be able to take a shower. But with all their hardships, they always find time to play. They're still kids."

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