SAN ANTONIO — Doug Brown has jumped out of airplanes 20,000 feet in the sky.
He has advised presidents. He has led missions deep into enemy territory in wars since 1967.
His toughest mission? Facing a library filled with elementary school students for the Great American Teach-In on Thursday, the retired commander of the nation's military special operations forces said with a grin.
"This is a tougher crowd than I'm used to talking to," Brown said as the children filed quietly into the San Antonio Elementary media center, several carrying small American flags to wave. "I'd rather be talking to students at the JFK School of Government."
The four-star general, whose forces faced down many of the world's "bad guys," came well prepared to deal with the youngsters, who were filled with enthusiasm and questions about his 40 years in the military. Brown let the children try on his Vietnam-era pilot's helmet, examine a full-size Army parachute, learn about the meals that soldiers eat in the field.
Hands shot up whenever he asked for some help.
Brown laughed each time.
"In the Army, the first rule is, never volunteer," he told the children, who continued their animated waves for the chance to participate. "But you guys are great. You should always volunteer."
After getting through his presentation, Brown asked a question to start a discussion rolling: "What do you guys think an Army does?"
Their answers included fighting wars, jumping out of airplanes, making it safe around the world and hurting people.
All good answers, Brown said. But there's even more.
"Let me tell you what you don't see," he said. "It's your Army. You should be very proud that they go into disaster areas and rebuild schools, teach classes, run medical clinics. . . . They eliminate suffering. They try to build security and stability so kids like you can go to school."
Then he opened the floor for student queries. They had many, including whether Brown had ever received a Purple Heart ("No, and I'm very glad about that") and what kinds of guns the Army uses ("It goes on up to whatever you need").
Some asked if he knew their parents serving in the military. He didn't, but told the children to thank their parents for their service.
One boy asked how others can join the Army.
That's where Brown stressed the importance of education — a key focus of the annual teach-in — telling the children to finish high school and college before heading to the recruiting office. It's a great career, he said, with many more opportunities if you have a degree.
After the presentation ended, the kids were still in awe. Some stayed longer to ask questions and learn more.
Fifth-grader Douglas Tillack, 10, and his brother Cameron, 8, a second-grader, were thrilled that their invited guest had proven such a great draw. They met Brown, who lives in Lake Jovita, after their dad did a construction project at his home and suggested they ask him to speak.
"Everybody would like to see the general," Cameron said. "I want to learn about war."
"I thought it was really interesting and amazing," said fifth-grader Riley Lachance, 11. "I didn't know they had a gas pole on the front of the big helicopters (for refueling). I didn't know you had double parachutes."
"I want to join the Army when I grow up," said fifth-grader Morgan Gilbert, also 11. "It seems kind of fun."
Kindergartener Sean Berry, 5, said he enjoyed learning about the Army and the parachutes that soldiers use when jumping out of planes.
"My second favorite thing was him talking about hiding in the woods, because it looks fun," he said, referring to the camouflage that Brown showed.
Brown said that he enjoyed his time meeting with the children, too.
"Coming to see you folks makes me very hopeful for the future of this nation," he told the kids. "Thanks for letting me come talk."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.