SALITRE participants share Airmen spirit of service with local orphanage, hospital children
By Capt. Candace Park, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Public Affairs
/ Published October 28, 2009
ANTOFAGASTA, Chile -- A little girl came running down the hospital hall with her arms wide open toward a group of uniformed officers towering above her.
"I didn't get a patch," she cried in Spanish pointing toward the 612th Air Operations Center squadron insignia on the Airmen's flight suits.
All of the officers knelt down, the one closest to the young girl extending his arms and handing her a patch from his shoulder. The group of visitors smiled as he affixed the patch to her purple shirt.
Only a few seconds passed, as she contemplated the token she'd been gifted, when unexpectedly, she pulled the patch off and handed it back to the officer, leaping into his arms.
"I don't want the patch anymore," she whimpered. "Just don't leave."
This is how a day full of heartwarming encounters began for 40 Airmen from the U.S., Argentine and Chilean Air Forces who took a break from exercise SALITRE Oct. 25, to reach out to members of the local community during a combined visit to 50 children at Antofagasta Regional Hospital and more than 120 children at Aldeas SOS orphanage here.
The community outreach events exceeded the expectations of the participants, including those of Argentinean Air Force public affairs officer, Lt. Col. Fernando Rubio.
"We came here expecting to bring smiles and happiness to these kids, but we are the ones leaving with the greater gift," Colonel Rubio said. "Here, there are no nationalities. We all share the same spirit -- a spirit of service that lives in our common Air Force culture, no matter what country you call home."
Airmen from 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) and the 159th Fighter Wing were moved to tears during their visit to the hospital, sharing stories about aviation, handing out patches, and giving hope to terminally ill children, many of whom have been confined to the hospital for more than a month.
For one Airman who turned 36 years old on the community outreach day, the experience was the best birthday gift he could think of receiving, he said.
The 120 children at Aldeas SOS orphanage gathered to sing "Happy Birthday" to Master Sgt. David Quintero, an aircraft armament systems craftsman from the 159th Fighter Wing.
"Just seeing their smiles is heartwarming, and truly the best birthday gift," Sergeant Quintero said. "To be here means a lot -- you're not just handing out candy and playing games with them, you're impacting their lives for the better."
The orphanage, a refuge for children removed from domestic violence situations, is more than just a semi-circle of brightly colored houses. It is a village of hope that gives children a place to call home, said Yanina Palacios.
Ms. Palacios, 23, has lived at the orphanage since she was only 1 year old, and is about to graduate college with a degree in finance, she said. She is giving back to the orphanage by helping care for the children every day after class.
"This is my home and these children are my brothers and sisters," she said. "To all of us, it means so much to have participants from the exercise visit our home."
The orphanage director, Nestor Rojas, said the Airmen boosted the children's self-esteem and are positive role models for the children to look up to.
"For the kids, this visit is like a dream," he said. "The pilots they have seen on TV and who they have watched fly overhead are here to play with them in their home. It is unreal to them."