By Sue Kiesewetter
COVEDALE - Far away, in northern Iraq, a purple Elder Panther flag flies proudly.
Put there on an Air Force base by members of the Ohio Air National Guard 123 Air Control Squadron, the flag and one from the University of Cincinnati reminded the soldiers of their Southwest Ohio roots.
It was there, in the midst of northern Iraq's oil fields, that 39-year-old master Sgt. Ron Grace of Delhi Township spent his summer. Grace's 33-member unit shipped out May 27 and returned Sept. 7.
Back home, students at St. Antoninus School were keeping tabs on Grace's Blue Ash-based unit, which included four Elder High School graduates and a Cincinnati Fire Department captain. Elsewhere on the base were Sarah Ruthven, a St. Antoninus graduate, and medic Mike Ludke, father of second-grader Abby Ludke.
On Friday, Grace spoke with the school's three first-grade classes at the request of his daughter Katie. His son, Adam, and older daughter, Erin, are third-graders at the school.
Grace said he wanted to talk to the children to let them know that good things - and some very normal things - are happening in Iraq. For example, medics from the base immunized Iraqi children. Others played soccer with them.
"Right there, next to an Iraqi junkyard, we built our tent city," Grace said pointing to a picture in the PowerPoint presentation he showed the students.
He talked of eating MREs - Meals Ready to Eat - packaged in Cincinnati and of Skyline chili brought from home. The best MREs, Grace said, were those with M&M's; the worst were those with pound cake.
He told of washing clothes by soaking them in tubs. Off-duty entertainment included playing cornhole brought from home and sending e-mail.
"It never rained once the whole time I was there," he said.
It was hot, reaching 138 degrees on the Fourth of July. Despite the heat, Grace said everyone wore military-issued long-sleeved camouflaged shirts, pants and body armor vests. The long sleeves, he told the children, kept away bugs.
Some children asked if there are rattlesnakes in Iraq. (Not rattlers, but yes, there are snakes.)
What about lizards, tigers, zebras or kangaroos? (No, but there are camels, donkeys and goats.)
When the first-graders asked about bombs and weapons, Grace said that with the exception of some mortar attacks, they were safe on base.
"The whole time we were there, they didn't drop bombs. The war was over by then," Grace said. "We were getting rid of all the nasties - collecting ammunition. Then we'd blow it up so it wouldn't hurt anybody."
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