PEO Soldier volunteers go to North Pole to help children

The PEO Soldier Fantasy Flight volunteers pose for a photo inside their portion of the North Pole. (Courtesy photo)

DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Virginia (Dec. 26, 2018) – On Dec. 8, a special United Airlines flight from Dulles International Airport took off for a flight to the North Pole. Aboard UA 2479 were children with life-threatening illnesses and their families who were excited to see Santa and Mrs. Claus and their home.

Meanwhile, at the end of Terminal D, hundreds of volunteers, including more than 20 from Program Executive Office Soldier, worked to finish turning this section of the airport into the North Pole.

No detail went unaddressed. Decorated Christmas trees filled the North Pole with a warm atmosphere. There were gathered elves, princesses, cartoon characters and even a Scottish bagpiper. The Departures Board showed UA 2479 departing for the North Pole, which was characteristically scheduled to depart “on time.”

For PEO Soldier volunteers, supporting Fantasy Flight is a tradition going back to 2010 when it first attended. They demonstrated the latest Soldier body armor, helmets, and thermal and night vision devices. The children participating were able to undergo night vision training to identify Rudolph and his nose so bright in a darkened room. Completing the course earned them a certificate.

Additionally, the kids also met a general officer, as Program Executive Officer Brig. Gen. Anthony W. “Tony” Potts and his wife, Jennifer, visited. The general was particularly excited to participate because he has a special needs nephew who has been the recipient of service at events such as Fantasy Flight. “You see what people are willing to do for your family,” he said. “We have the ability to do something for somebody to change the trajectory of their life,” adding that participating in Fantasy Flight allows people to “be part of something bigger than yourself.”

For some of the volunteers, this was their first year, such as Col. Stephen Thomas, Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment; Maj. Austin Banford, Herb Champion, and Elaine Lawler from Product Manager Soldier Protective Equipment; and Lt. Col. Jonathan E. Allen and Capt. Jonathan Jagatnarian of Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment.

“Volunteering is very self-rewarding to me,” said Colonel Thomas. “I’ve always had a sense of responsibility to give back where and how I can. Fantasy Flight provided me an opportunity to make a contribution to a worthy event.”

Major Banford volunteered to give something special to the children. “I volunteered for this event because I believe that these kids deserve something amazing in their lives,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of making some time in their lives better, even if only for a moment.

“And I took my daughter because she is very kind and compassionate, and I want her to give back while developing her perspective of life’s challenges,” Major Banford said. “The hospice kids are examples of real happiness and strength amid terrible circumstances.”

Captain Jagatnarian said volunteering is a way for him to connect with communities he’s lived in during his career. “As a Soldier, I live a vagabond’s life and this is my way of giving back to the communities, areas and organizations that I have [moved] to.”

Lawler said volunteering is serious business. She said volunteering “makes you happy, increases your personal gratitude and makes you see your own life that much clearer.”

“I know all those families are hurting and scared, and yet I could see the absolute joy they were experiencing and for those few moments on that special day, and I know they all felt very special and loved and that is exactly how it should be,” Lawler added.

Other volunteers have participated multiple times. Fiona Shrimpton of Project Manager Soldier Sensors and Lasers said there is a magical quality to the event. “Fantasy Flight won’t cure a child’s illness, but it is an escape for a few hours for the family members of a sick child,” Shrimpton said. “It’s an escape to a weird and wonderful North Pole where Santa Claus lives alongside Princesses, people who wear Ghillie suits, and elves who have night vision goggles to help find Rudolph. I can’t help but be reminded that I am truly blessed to have my health.”

Longtime volunteer Jorge Concepcion of Product Manager Soldier Maneuver Sensors has never missed a year since 2010.

“I started participating in the very first one because I like to give back to the community,” said Concepcion, who lost his daughter to cancer. “Because many of these kids are terminal, I made a commitment to be there every year.”

Lt. Col. Ginger Whitehead, Product Manager Soldier Protective Equipment, participated in her second Fantasy Flight. “It gives my 12-year-old daughter and me perspective,” she said. “There’s much we take for granted. Even my worst day is still a good day, and you have to treat tomorrow like it’s not promised.”

Many of the volunteers left with lasting memories.

General Potts described the initial joy experienced by the children as one of his strongest takeaways. “It was to see the smiles on the children when they entered the North Pole,” he said. “They were overwhelmed” by the outpouring of love from a community of strangers, the general added.

Interactions with the children moved Major Banford. “There was a little, frail boy who was very sad that came into our area. I started talking to him on my knees but he was still sad. I placed some Transition Eye Protection on his eyes and pressed the button, making them darken, and this huge smile grew on his face. Then he wanted body armor and a helmet and seemed in much lighter spirits.

“There was another boy who walked up to me and tapped my shoulder and said, ‘Are you a real Army man?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He proceeded to ask me about all the equipment, trying it all on and taking many Soldierly poses. I told him that he looked better than we do. He shrugged and said, ‘No, I think you guys look great,’ and gave me a huge hug. He then went to get his face painted so he could put on the Ghillie suit because he always wanted to be a sniper.”

Shrimpton said it’s impossible to recount a lasting memory. “This is like answering my daughters when they ask me what my favorite color is,” Shrimpton said. “I have many favorites.”

“I love working together with my colleagues to bring a smile to families who are struggling with a child’s illness. I enjoy sharing our fantastic equipment with all the participants at Fantasy Flight. I really love the wow factor on children’s faces when they look through Enhanced Night Vision Goggle and see the heat from a fingerprint. And then, they learn that they can see in the dark…priceless!”

Lieutenant Colonel Allen said Fantasy Flight is just what the world needs year round. “It was very heart-warming to see so many people taking the time to bring happiness and joy to someone else,” he said. “The world needs more of this, not just doing the holidays. I am so grateful for my health and the opportunity to give back to those that are enduring hardship. ”

One Fantasy Flight veteran is ready for the 2019 edition.

“I love it,” said Rachelle Wiles of Product Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, who participated in her third Fantasy Flight. “I will continue to volunteer if PEO continues to participate.”

(Russell Petcoff of PEO Soldier Public Affairs contributed to this article.)

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan E. Allen, Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment, helps a Ghillie suit-clad child low crawl like a sniper.

Lieutenant Colonel Ginger Whitehead, Product Manager Soldier Protective Equipment, fits a helmet on a child.

About Alton Stewart

Alton Stewart is the Acting Director of Public Affairs for PEO Soldier. An Army veteran of the Gulf War, he has been with PEO Soldier since 2003.