Tatsuyuki Higa, a Special Olympics athlete, marches a torch down the field on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Nov. 17, 2012. See more photos at the link below.
KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- Every year hundreds of athletes and artists with special needs gather at Kadena Air Base to enjoy the sports and art they love.
For a young, smiling, Marlee McDaniel, daughter of the 18th Wing vice commander, this is her first year competing in the Kadena Special Olympics.
"This is emotional for us. We've shied away in the past to protect her," said Col. Brian McDaniel, Marlee's dad. "But they say, 'If I can't win let me be brave.'"
Marlee has Down syndrome, a genetic condition where a person has an extra chromosome; this causes problems with the way the body and brain develop.
"This does not affect my military career," the father said. "We are part of an exceptional family member program and before every (permanent change of duty station) we make sure we have everything we need for Marlee. "
The 7 year old loves to swim and run everywhere. She also takes tennis and ballet lessons and during KSO she competed in the 30 meter dash, tennis skills and the softball throw, even through the rain.
"I think people have a misconception about special needs kids," said Deborah McDaniel, Marlee's mom. "They are just like any other child, and they just want to be part of a group or part of a team. People just need to give them that chance."
Throughout the years, Special Olympic events have done just that, give special-needs children a chance to be a part of something with others they can relate to.
As Marlee competed in events throughout the day she ran with enthusiasm, interacted with volunteers, athletes and artists with charm and demonstrated the courage to others that may be still too timid to participate in these types of events.
Her father spoke of his daughter proudly, "Marlee has taught us how to be a hero."
About Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers: Kadena Air Base is the hub of airpower in the Pacific, and home to the Air Force's largest combat wing -- the 18th Wing -- and a variety of associate units. Together they form "Team Kadena" -- a world-class combat team ready to fight and win from the Keystone of the Pacific.
Nearly 18,000 Americans and more than 4,000 Japanese employees and contractors make up Team Kadena. The base's estimated economic impact upon Okinawa's economy is more than $700 million annually.