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By JOSHUA COFFMAN firstname.lastname@example.org FORT KNOX — Elmo served as grand marshal in a parade of preschoolers celebrating the Army’s birthday. Although the military branch didn’t turn 233 years old until Saturday, the children kicked off the celebration a day early. They lined up with homemade patriotic hats as workers at the Fort Knox Child Development Center pushed babies in strollers adorned with American flags. In all, 325 kids participated in the parade. A couple, including 2-year-old Aniya Madison, celebrated their birthday along with the Big Green. Capt. Donna Vanderheyden’s 18-month-old son Michael participated in the parade. “The celebration of the Army’s birthday is a big event,” she said. “I think it’s great that the families and the kids celebrate.” Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Essex, who is in Iraq with the 3rd Sustainment Command, read the Army Birthday book via satellite video phone to his four children and a group of kindergartners. The kids held books and flipped through the pages as he read. Essex’s face lit up when his wife, Carlisa, held up their 1-year-old daughter, Adrianna. His other three children were shy, talking to their father in front of a room full of other kids with TV cameras pointed at them. But they gleefully said hi and bye. “It was a big surprise at first,” Essex said of being chosen by his unit to read the book. “I was wondering how they got my name.” After he said goodbye and the video feed ended, emotion sunk in for his three older children, as they again realized their dad will be gone for at least another year. Rachel, 13, Dominique, 11, and Kennedi, 6, wiped tears with tissues as they talked with TV reporters. “It was great to see him,” Carlisa said. “But to know we’re not going to see him (for a while) after this is kind of hard. ... If it means him serving his country and me taking care of us all over here, then he’s going to come home safe.” And so is a bittersweet birthday for an Army at war. “Because my family is an Army family, we’re part of the Army family history,” Essex read before closing the book and saying goodbye. “I’m proud that my dad is an Army soldier and that we are an Army family. The Army is also proud of my family. They help take care of us when my dad is far away. They say that together we are Army family strong.” Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.