TAMPA — With mystery comes fear.
To kids like 11-year-old Gabrielle Greenley, a parent's deployment overseas can be scary and unsettling, sometimes simply because they don't know much about what a mom or dad is going through.
"It wasn't fun because normally all of the stuff I did was really with him," said Gabrielle, whose father, Army Sgt. Melvin Greenley, has been deployed to South Korea since March. "That all went away. . . . It was like really sad when he left. I miss him."
To lessen the mystery of deployment, MacDill Air Force Base officials held their annual "MacDill CARES" event Tuesday to help about 76 fifth-graders, most from MacDill's Tinker Elementary School, understand the deployment process.
Most of these children have experienced a parent's deployment.
"We can relieve some of that anxiety the children will feel," said Col. Kelly Martin, vice commander of MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing.
After Tuesday's program, Martin said, "They kind of feel like, 'I've been there.' "
MacDill CARES — Contingency and Readiness Education — takes students through a pretend deployment to Qatar in the Middle East. The students get inoculations (toy syringes filled with candy), dog tags, an intelligence briefing and orders to march to Camp Qatar.
The camp is a hangar off MacDill's flight line, where the kids found several displays of military hardware that inevitably pique any 10- or 11-year-old's interest.
Demonstrations include a bomb-sniffing dog, a remote-controlled robot that can retrieve explosives, parachutes, firefighting gear and samples of Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs.
Kids tried on helmets and 20-pound flak jackets.
They also toured a KC-135, an aerial refueling jet.
The goal, said organizers, is good fun and a reminder that a parent overseas is part of a team that protects its own.
"The children love it," said First Sgt. Will Clancy, a Green Beret who escorted the kids around the hangar. "It's a chance for them to see what mom and dad do. It shows them that their mom or dad are not alone when they're deployed."
Something shown at previous CARES events was absent this year, in part because of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the deaths of 20 first-graders there.
No weapons were displayed.
Tech Sgt. Tashiana Sanders, not mentioning Sandy Hook by name, told the kids the base wanted to be sensitive given recent news events.
"We're acting on the side of caution today," she said.
Jiya Bunting, 10, tasted an MRE sample at one table, and immediately grimaced. "Nasty," she said. Turning to Tech Sgt. Deborah White, the girl asked, "How in the world do you eat this?"
LeeAnn Cebollero, 11, offered a trick her stepdad learned while deployed to Afghanistan. "Got any Tabasco sauce?" she said.
Hot sauce, it seems, makes any meal palatable.