Fort Benning

This Chilean army officer and his family celebrated their first July Fourth in Columbus

Guillermo Collao was excited Thursday morning.

The 46-year-old Chilean military officer was celebrating his first Fourth of July with the crowd of people and families who came to Freedom Fest held at the National Infantry Museum.

Early in the day, clouds kept the sun at bay. But the July heat and humidity had some lined up for snow cones. Some youngsters climbed a rock wall and got up close and personal with military vehicles. You’d catch a few people at the misting towers trying to stay cool, too.

Collao, his wife, his daughter and his son got to the event around 10 a.m. when the gates opened. He put his five-year-old son, Rafael, in the front seat of a Blackhawk helicopter to pose for a picture.

“I’m a paratrooper, and (I think) my son wants to be a paratrooper,” Collao said.

Collao, a sergeant major who has served almost three decades in Chile’s army, is here training cadets from Latin American military academies at Fort Benning’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He said he’s spent more than a year at Benning. But Thursday was his first July Fourth celebration.

“I think it’s a great country,” he said. “A big country. A beautiful place, and I’m (thankful) for the opportunity to work here and to celebrate with you this important day.”

The goal for the day: have fun and show his children how Americans celebrate July Fourth. His home country celebrates its independence day in September. The holidays are observed similarly with large gatherings, food and drinks. But there are a few differences, he said.

“Not with fireworks,” he said of the Chilean celebration.

Things at Freedom Fest were expected to wind down around 4 p.m. but afternoon thunder and rain showers around 2 p.m. put a brief damper on the day. About 5,100 people had attended the event in all, said Cyndy Cerbin, spokesperson for the NIM.

“We put it on pause for about 30 minutes and encouraged everyone to go inside,” Cerbin said of the weather.

The Collaos said they were joining some of their American friends for a party and a firework show later in the evening. He’s expected to return to Chile in January 2020. He misses his parents and the Chilean food but he’ll miss a few things about America once he leaves, he said.

“It’s simple,” he said of the United States. “People enjoy their lives here. The people are so nice. All the people say hello. If you don’t know anybody, people say hello. It’s good.”