Mark Washburn

NC third-grader at heart of international photo mystery

A photo that appeared in the Aug. 27 Observer came with a mystery attached, a furry one in the form of a bear.

Airmen with the N.C. National Guard’s 145th Airlift Wing, based in Charlotte and on deployment to the Mideast, had been called upon to drop food and water to starving refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar in Iraq. Refugees had fled there to escape Islamist fighters from the organization known as Islamic State or ISIS.

During the mission, loadmasters with the 145th dropped 800-pound pallets with supplies from the belly of the unit’s C-130s.

“At least one pallet flew with an unofficial component: A teddy bear for a child was strapped aboard,” the Observer reported. But we didn’t know where the bear came from and how it came to be there.

Now we do.

Among the 100 members of the 145th who became part of the humanitarian mission was Sgt. Andrea Thompson, who lives in the Triad. She has an 8-year-old daughter, and they were chatting on Skype one day. Thompson couldn’t tell her daughter, Kailyn, much about what she was doing because of military secrecy, but told her a little.

“My mom was helping people on a mountain,” Kailyn says. “And there was kids up there. So I wanted to send some stuff up there so they would have something to do.”

Kailyn, a third-grader, asked her mother to get a bear at the store on the base. And somehow get it to those kids on the mountain.

“My daughter had me send lots of candy – ‘because the food might not all be good’ – and she said do a note with drawn hearts and smiley faces because they might not be able to read English, but she wanted them to know we were thinking of them,” Thompson says.

Mission accomplished. A military photographer documenting the mission saw the bear attached to a pallet before takeoff and snapped a frame, which made its way to the Observer.

Kailyn didn’t name the bear. She left that to someone else, someone whose difficult life was maybe made a bit brighter by a bear from the air sent by a little girl far, far away.

“They pushed it off and it flew down to the people,” Kailyn says. “I think the kids shared it. I don’t know for sure.”