Desert Storm fighter pilot Russell Handy, an Edgewood native back inthe United States less than a week, spent much of his day Friday going to school -- four times, to be exact.
Handy wanted to thank hisHarford County pen pals -- most of whom he'd never met before -- forwriting to him regularly during his seven months in the Persian Gulf.
"I really feel like people who wrote letters fought the war with us," Handy said, explaining why he visited the schools so soon after returning to his post at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
"I felt they deserve to hear what it was like over there and what their part was in it."
For the visits, he wore his flight suit.
The pupils in Magnolia Elementary teacher Marian Wilkinson's class mobbed him.
They brought American flags to class for him to autograph. Theybought a cake and presented Handy with a model airplane someone's father had made.
Like the Magnolia pupils, those at Havre de Grace Middle School and Darlington and Jarrettsville elementary schools alsowere thrilled to see Handy.
"Did the sand get on your nerves? Didit interfere with your flying? What did you eat? Did you get to see the Super Bowl?" were just some of the questions.
Handy, an F-15C pilot with the 71st Tactical Fighter Squadron, flew in combat missions to defend groups of bombers going into Iraq.
"I went on 30 or 32long missions. I had about 175 hours of combat time and twice that much air time getting ready. Any danger was part of what we had to do," said Handy, a 1978 graduate of Joppatowne High School and now an Air Force captain.
At Havre de Grace Middle School, he thanked pupils in his niece Jennifer Browning's eighth-grade English class for writing.
"It meant a lot to me," Handy said quietly.
Her classmates' thoughtfulness also meant a lot to Jennifer.
"They were really nice about it. I'm sure they were tired of it because I talked about him all the time," she said.
The adolescents in Jennifer's class asked eagerly about weapons, planes and the battles.
"I was right down the road -- about 2 1/2 miles away -- from the barracks that got bombed. It was unfortunate so many people died or were hurt, because it really was a lucky shot," Handy said in response to one question.
"Another time a Scud missile hit right outside our door," he said."Since most of the attacks were at night, you could watch the missiles coming in and see the impact of the Patriot missiles. It was rather spectacular."
Did Handy think the war would end quickly? anotherstudent asked.
"I thought the Iraqis would fight more tenaciouslythan they did," he responded.
But there was also time for relaxation and building friendships with Saudi Arabian and British troops, Handy told the students.
"We put up a basketball hoop two weeks before we left," he said. "Right now, somebody's learning to play basketball."
The hardest part about being in the gulf for so long was being away from his 20-month-old daughter, Handy said following Jennifer's class.
"You didn't care if it was going to be a year down the road. You just wanted a date. Emily took one step the day before I left. The hardest part was being away from home and knowing so much washappening without me."
Friday's visit was also a time for family reunion for Handy and his wife, Joann, who also grew up in Edgewood. The couple are planning a vacation soon, but Handy said he felt it was important to visit first the Harford schoolchildren who wrote to him.
"All they're doing back here is worth it. The letters, banners,ribbons, waving flags were all important," he said. "I know some of the POWs, and I've heard what they've said. That's a pretty good gauge of what it's like to feel isolated and alone."