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Strangers turn into pals at Puyallup Fair

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- Master Sgt. Eric Wentworth, 446th Civil Engineer Squadron, talks with Mr. Elbert “Al” Senyohl, from the Washington Soldiers Home, while at the Puyallup Fair. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bud McKay)

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- Master Sgt. Eric Wentworth, 446th Civil Engineer Squadron, talks with Mr. Elbert “Al” Senyohl, from the Washington Soldiers Home, while at the Puyallup Fair. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bud McKay)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- A passing Puyallup police officer walked by Airman 1st Class Jonas Pelayo, 62nd Communications Squadron, at the Puyallup Fair and said, "thanks for your service, Airman." Airman Pelayo, who was helping cut the food for Doug Brown, from the Washington Soldiers Home, nodded to the police officer and said, "they should be thanking him (Brown) for what he did - not me." 

Airman Pelayo was one of 21 McChord Airmen who escorted 27 residents of the Washington Soldiers Home in Orting at the Puyallup Fair Thursday. According to Ileen Gallagher, a director at the home, McChord has been the exclusive chaperones for the residents at the fair for more than 35 years. 

"We couldn't bring the residents to the Puyallup Fair without the help from McChord," Gallagher said. "This is one of the highlights of the year for our residents. When they see (the Airmen) in their full dress blue uniforms with all the ribbons, they get very excited." 

The residents of the Home enjoying the day at the state's largest fair ranged from 50 to 95 years old. All but one of the residents had to use wheelchairs to get around, and the McChord Airmen made sure the residents were able to see anything they wanted to see. 

Once the residents arrived at the fair, the Airmen greeted them as they came off of the bus. One of the first people off the bus was Ken Masters. He was matched with Staff Sgt. John Havens, 62nd Medical Squadron. The two found out quickly they had more in common other than both serving in the military -- they were both from Michigan. 

"What do you want to see first?" Sergeant Havens said. 

"The exhibits," Masters said. "That's my favorite too," Sergeant Havens said, and the two men from Michigan set off to enjoy the day. 

Once the residents came out of the bus, McChord Airmen all headed in different directions. Some of the residents had game plans on what they wanted to see. Others just pointed when they saw something they liked. Some were happy to have the Airmen lead the way. 

"We walked all over the fair, and I mean all over," said Staff Sgt. Rachell Martinez, 62nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, who was helping a former Coast Guard Reserve member. "We looked through displays of paintings, drawings and spent a lot of time looking at the woodworking exhibits." 

Senior Airman Phillip Greene-Henry, 62nd Aerial Port Squadron, said he took his guest all over the fair as well and got to see the typical fair items - like animals, vendors and food - and some "extras." 

"He was quite the flirt," he said. "I'd start to push him toward one area at the fair and he'd spot a pretty girl and tell me to take him over to see her, and he'd start to talk with her." 

While the soldiers and the Airmen were strangers when they first met, it didn't take them long to form friendships. Soon, conversations began to flow easier. 

"I was in the Army in Vietnam for 2-and-a-half years as a truck driver and a mechanic," Brown said. "The Air Force were good people." 

The Washington Soldiers Home opened in 1891 and has a residential capacity of 183. It provides longterm health care for honorably discharged veterans -- and in some instances, their spouses - who are disabled and indigent, or likely to become indigent. 

The McChord Airmen each had reasons why they wanted to help. Most just felt it was a way of giving back to the veterans for their sacrifices from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. 

"When I first read about this opportunity, I jumped at it," said Tech. Sgt. Joseph Nicosia, 62nd Logistics Readiness Squadron. "I thought it was just a great chance to spend part of a day with veterans who gave so much for their country. It seemed the least I could do."
But Sergeant Nicosia isn't letting his friendship with his guest end at the fair. 

"I took photos of us together on my cell phone and sent the pictures to my wife," he said. "I knew this would be a rewarding experience, but I didn't expect it to be so much fun. My wife and I are going to visit the soldiers home in a couple of weeks."