They marched out of synch, slouched their shoulders and some even skipped. At 10 and 11 years old, the 85 "new recruits" could be forgiven an occasional misstep.
The youngsters, fifth-graders from Tinker Elementary School, were participants in Camp CARE, a mock deployment held Wednesday at MacDill Air Force Base to give the children a glimpse into what their parents and siblings experience as military members deployed overseas.
The students donned flak vests and impossibly large helmets, tasted MREs — some liked the ready-made meals — climbed aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling plane and watched security demonstrations by airmen.
"We want them to know that when their parents are deployed that we will take care of them, and we will take care of their parents," said Lt. Col. Caroline Omdal, 43, a mother of three.
After a "deployment briefing" where the children received fake inoculations and real lollipops, they marched four abreast toward a towering hangar bay, chanting, "My grandma was 93. She did PT better than me. One, two, threeeee, four. Love PT, gimme me some more."
Their mock destination was Qatar, a country in the Middle East. Entering a 50-foot canvas tent just inside the hangar, they stared wide-eyed, then bounced excitedly between the exhibits and live demonstrations.
Some begged, "Do it again," when Master Sgt. Don Walters disarmed "a bad guy" pointing a fake M-4 rifle at his back.
"I liked the gun stuff," Jaylen Hill, 10, said, grinning.
The children also climbed aboard an ambulance and fire truck and watched a Belgian Malinois lunge at a heavily padded, would-be attacker.
The refueling plane just outside the hangar elicited the most oohs and ahhs as groups of youngsters went inside the cockpit and asked 1st Lt. Marlo Peloquin about the tiny windows and throng of switches and levers.
"Going on the plane, that was the coolest," said Natasha Hooks, 10.
Base officials host Camp CARE, which stands for Contingency and Readiness Education, annually at MacDill to help children of service members cope with the stress and fear that can accompany a parent's deployment. Officials use the event to assure children that they're protecting their parents as best they can. Almost all of the children who attend come from Tinker Elementary, which sits on MacDill's grounds. Some come from schools outside the base.
On Wednesday, many of the children said they had felt the pain of separation and had a mom, dad or brother recently deployed.
Only two hours earlier, Natasha welled up with tears as she recalled her father Willie's deployment to Afghanistan and his safe return last year.
"I cried every day," she said shyly. "I worried he would get hurt or die. I missed him so much."
On his return, she said she almost didn't recognize him. MacDill officials say that's common after a deployment.
Olivia Macias, 11, said she worried that her father Johnny would "get hurt or sick," and told him on the phone how she missed him.
On the day of his return six months ago, "I was really happy. I wanted to cry," she said.
Joey Steele, 11, said he misses his brother Cody, who is at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C. He said his mother, a teacher at Tinker Elementary, shares his concern.
"I said, 'I'll always remember you,' " Cody said, recalling his parting words to his brother. "He told me not to worry. 'I'll be home soon.' "