Friday was a special birthday for Air National Guard Maj. Jessica McClarty, who Skyped from Qatar with her daughter’s third-grade class at Trinity Lutheran School in Kalispell.
Her daughter is Madison Gilchrist, who was happy to see her mom’s face. Madison anticipates her mother’s return to the United States in about 20 days. This is McClarty’s ninth deployment and the third in her daughter’s lifetime.
Teacher Joanne Cutler held up a large microphone affixed to a boom arm so McClarty could hear the class clearly.
The teacher, Madison and most of her classmates were wearing purple for Purple Up!, a day for people to show support for military and veteran children as part of the “month of the military child.”
McClarty watched as Lee Fretwell, family assistance specialist for the Montana National Guard, presented certificates of recognition to her daughter and third-grader Aiden Shaver, whose father, Adam, serves in the Army National Guard. Both also received letters of appreciation from Gov. Steve Bullock for the children’s courage and sacrifice.
But the item that drew the most attention was a folded American flag presented to the entire class.
Students stood as Fretwell unwrapped the flag, which was flown on a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor for Operation Inherent Resolve in Qatar.
The flag unwrapping was followed by applause as Madison, Aiden and another classmate held up the flag for photos.
“I had that flag flown the first of the year,” McClarty said.
And just as parents are wont to do, McClarty got out her smartphone to capture a big moment in her daughter’s life.
“Where are you at?” McClarty asked when the flag was held a little too high, covering Madison’s face. “Maddie, I can’t see you. Oh, there you are.”
Cutler turned to the camera.
“A few of the kids want to come up and tell you what it means to them to have you serve our country so that we can have the freedoms that we have in America” Cutler said, choking up a little bit. “And I’m getting emotional. Thank you so much, Jessica, for your sacrifice, for your family, and we just really, really want to share what it means to have our freedom in the awesome country of the United States of America.”
McClarty’s mother, Bonnie, stood in a corner taking in the moment with tears in her eyes. Although Bonnie video-chats with her daughter regularly, this is the first time she has joined the Trinity students.
Fretwell, too, was caught up in the emotion of the exchange between the third-graders and the far-off major.
Students took turns before the camera to say they are thankful for the safety and protection servicemen and women provide while a few were thankful for the freedom to practice their religion.
“Thinking about that real quick,” McClarty said. “On the base we have Sunday service. Last Sunday service talked about our freedom and how other countries and other people have to risk their lives to be able to practice their religion.”
Cutler opened the floor to questions, the first being what McClarty got for her birthday.
“The other day they had a special birthday meal for everyone who had a birthday in April,” McClarty said. “We had lobster tail.”
McClarty then introduced a special guest, her boss, Lt. Col. Rusty Vaira of the Great Falls 219th Red Horse Squadron.
“Hi everyone,” Vaira said. “What a good-looking group. Madison, I wished your mother happy birthday for you today.”
Vaira asked the students if they had any questions.
“How do you like being boss?” third-grader Emma Bohleen asked.
“It’s really good to be boss sometimes. I have a boss and I have to listen to them as well. We have a large group. A lot of folks in a lot of different areas. A lot of it is communication,” Vaira said.
Another student asks if his work is similar work to McClarty’s.
“A little different than Maddie’s mom. So what I do is run the operation of all the construction that we do. I make sure they have the right equipment at the right locations; the right materials; the right people that run the equipment,” Vaira said, in order to construct buildings, roads and runways. “Me and what Maddie’s mom do, is we support a lot of folks that are doing that. Like in your classroom everyone is doing something different. We do different activities that help with the progress.”
Aiden asked if Vaira likes his job.
“I love my job,” Vaira said later, adding, “The stuff that we do is very important helping building things used by other people.”
Aiden thanked Vaira and McClarty for their service and gave a thumbs-up.
Cutler also thanked the pair.
McClarty responded: “I just want to thank the whole class talking to me these last few months and praying for me and all of your support. I really, really enjoyed these Skype sessions. Madison, I love you.”
Joann then turned the class loose.
“Everybody wave. You can all come up now,” Joann said.
The class ran up to the camera, squeezed into a tight group, stretched out their arms and waved.
“God be with you,” Cutler said.
The third-graders loudly repeated in unison: “God be with you.”
Hilary Matheson is a reporter for The Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From left, Aiden Shaver, Madison Gilchrist and Emma Bohleen, members of Joann Cutler’s third grade at Trinity Lutheran, hold a flag sent to them by Gilchrist’s mother Major Jessica McClarty. The flag was flown on the first of January earlier this year, on an F-22 Raptor during a combat sortie mission in Southwest Asia by Pilot Major Peter “Sly” Liggieri of the 199th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron “Hawaiian Raptors.” (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Joann Cutler’s third grade class gathers around the Skyp camera to wave goodbye to Major Jessica McClarty on Friday morning, April 15, at Trinity Lutheran School in Kalispell. McClarty’s daughter, Madison Gilchrist is a member of Cutler’s class. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)
Family Assistance Specialist for the Montana National Guard Lee Fretwell presents a flag to Madison Gilchrist and Joann Cutler’s third grade class on Friday morning, April 15, at Trinity Lutheran School in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)