CHARLOTTE — Pupils at Charlotte Elementary School rolled out the red carpet last week to welcome home Persian Gulf veteran Airman 1st Class Chris Bernardini, one of the many military friends the pupils made this year by sending letters, news updates and cookies to gulf troops.
Last November, the 48 pupils in the school decided to give up their traditional Thanksgiving feast to use the money to send gifts to the troops overseas. They took most of one school day to make hundreds of cookies, packed them with letters and local newspapers, and sent them off to the Middle East, some to general delivery and some to specific servicemen and sevicewomen from the region. The pupils continued to write letters throughout Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
Two local soldiers who got gift boxes from Charlotte were Chris and Tony Bernardini, sons of Louis and Marilyn Bernardini of Calais. Chris was stationed at an Air Force communication center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while Tony served with the U.S. Navy aboard a helicopter carrier.
After a brief visit home, Tony has already gone back to his base in Virginia, but Chris wrangled a few extra days home before he returns to Fort Benning, Ga. He took time from his leave to join the pupils at their end-of-school awards day, saying, “Thank you for your support. I got the cookies; mostly in one piece, fresh and good. The letters and the news were really welcome. It was a great feeling to know that people at home were backing us, thinking about us.”
Bernardini was in Saudi Arabia from August until April. Asked if he was scared, he said, “definitely. One of the scariest times was right at the start, on the flight over last August. We’d been told that afternoon (that) there wouldn’t be any more flights for three days, and then that night we were given our gas masks and other gear and put on a plane. We didn’t know if the war was going to start right off.”
The temperature hit 126 degrees on his first day in Riyadh, “so hot your perspiration didn’t get you wet; it just left a white film from the salt,” he said. “Nothing but rocks and sand. It was as different from Maine as it could be. I’ll take Maine anytime.”
His unit’s job was to relay messages between the central command and the tactical fighter wings. “We were busy right from the start. With the huge build-up going on, so many troops from all over the world, it seemed like the war was going to start any minute. Waiting, wondering what was going to happen, how long we were going to be there, was hard. We didn’t know if we were going to be there for nine days or for a year.”
When the shooting started, Bernardini said, “we did see a few Scuds go over. That was scary, but we saw our Patriots go right after them. It was tense, but we knew pretty much right off that Iraq didn’t have much air power left. We did lose some troops over there, but we got the job done. Everything went fairly well, considering the size of Iraq’s army and the weapons they had.”
Bernardini told the pupils he has about two years left on his enlistment, “and I’m glad I went into the Air Force. I don’t think I’ll sign up again, mostly because I want to be in Maine, but I’d recommend going into the service to any one of you. Everyone ought to do something to serve their country; it’s a valuable experience.”