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Beyond entertainment, the thunder is profound

A group of young air show spectators look on as the United States Air Force Thunderbirds prepare for takeoff May 18, 2014, here. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

A group of young air show spectators look on as the United States Air Force Thunderbirds prepare for takeoff May 18, 2014, here. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

Marcella Zinz stands behind her son Henry watching the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds land after a performance on May 16, 2014 here. The Zinz, along with several other families from Akron Children’s Hospital Boardman, were treated to VIP seats for the air show preview day and a meet-and-greet with the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

Marcella Zinz stands behind her son Henry watching the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds land after a performance on May 16, 2014 here. The Zinz, along with several other families from Akron Children’s Hospital Boardman, were treated to VIP seats for the air show preview day and a meet-and-greet with the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

Four members of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds pilot their F-16 Fighting Falcons above a Youngstown C-130H Hercules aircraft during their aerial survey May 13, 2014, here. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

Four members of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds pilot their F-16 Fighting Falcons above a Youngstown C-130H Hercules aircraft during their aerial survey May 13, 2014, here. The Thunderbirds came to Youngstown Air Reserve Station to perform at the 2014 Thunder Over the Valley Air Show May 17 and 18. U.S. Air Force photo/Eric M. White

YOUNGSTOWN AIR RESERVE STATION, Ohio -- When I was about seven years old, my cousin and I climbed the ladder on the back of my grandparents' RV to get a better view of the Cleveland International Air Show. A photographer saw us perched there, binoculars to our eyes, enthusiasm on our faces, the American flag waving in the background (my grandpa, a prior Service member, made sure the colors were posted).The next day, we were on the cover of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I've still got a few copies in a box in my parents' basement.

As a kid, I loved the Thunderbirds. I had an inflatable F-16 Fighting Falcon, complete with the Thunderbird's legendary paint job hanging from my bedroom light for years. I so looked forward to the big show each year. And really, who wouldn't? They're loud. They're fast. Their maneuvers are breath-taking. They perform with awe-inspiring precision, and they represent the air power of the greatest military force in history.

After high school and through college my career path landed me unexpectedly as a 910th Airlift Wing public affairs specialist. It's my honor to help tell the story of the men and women who serve their country and defend our freedom at Youngstown Air Reserve Station. The biggest focus of that story for the past six months or so has been planning and executing Thunder Over the Valley 2014, which we hosted May 17-18 featuring (you guessed it) the United States Air Force Thunderbirds.

I've been fortunate to work with an incredible team of Service members, civilian employees and volunteers who overcame some incredible obstacles to make Thunder Over the Valley a reality. I've never before seen a group of people work this hard and this selflessly on such a complicated and challenging project, but in my eight years with the 910th, I've learned that's what our military members do. They serve.

There were plenty of big challenges along the way, and sure we had some hiccups, but our motivations for hosting such a huge event were affirmed Sunday afternoon as I stood at show center next to Maj. Jay Ference, the air show director, surveying the crowd of more than 20,000 spectators and observing their expressions of awe and pride as our Ambassadors in Blue spun up their engines.

That's what air shows are all about. It's impressive to see static displays like the mighty C-5 Galaxy or the fearsome A-10 Warthog. It's exhilarating to watch a woman walk on the wings of an aircraft in flight or see a man on a motorcycle race his by-plane-piloting brother down the runway. It's breathtaking to see the Thunderbirds break from formation in their famous bomb burst maneuver to the sweet music of God Bless America. But the whole experience is profound far beyond its value as entertainment.

It's profound because we live in the United States, the capital of the free world. When her people gather together, braving the chill showers or hot sun, long lines and big crowds, they do so to remember freedom and its cost. Seeing all the young kids in the crowd brought my childhood air show experiences back to mind, and I found myself comforted knowing they too may grow up understanding what was paid for our liberty. For most, the response will be deep gratitude. Some few may even take the oath, volunteering to defend our freedom as so many courageous men and women have done before them.

I still enjoy the Thunderbirds with a childlike awe, and they consistently remind me why I love this nation and of the price that has been paid to make her what she is.

Oh, and my cousin is now an Air Force Airman.