Hilltop fifth-graders offer words of compassion to GIs waiting for war in a distant desert

John-Luke Marcos contemplates his next words as he prepares a letter to be send to a company of U.S. Marines stationed near the Iraqi border. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

ILWACO - On a recent day in Tiffany Turner's fifth-grade class, the students wrote letters to men and women they've never met.

Under late afternoon light, shining through the old windows of their Hilltop School classroom, their teacher read from a book as they worked feverishly, thinking carefully before each word. Some asked questions, some drew pictures, some told secrets, but all wanted to make a connection with a service person, now stationed only miles from a country that may be the epicenter of a new war only hours or days from now.

Turner, the sister of U.S. Marine Reservist Jared Oakes - see related story - told her brother before his departure to the Kuwaiti desert she would write him once a week. And even though getting a letter from his big sister may not have been as appealing in the past, she said that his response was enthusiastic.

"That would be awesome," was the reply from her brother. "You know, he was really excited about it," said Turner. "It made me realize how much a letter means to somebody over there."

Turner said that her class had been following her brother's story for awhile. They had always been extremely interested, so she decided that she would give the class the option of writing a letter to someone in Oakes' company - which consists of over 150 men and women.

"It was the fastest writing assignment they ever finished," she said.

Turner said that since they could not be given specific names of the soldiers, they were written in an open-letter style. She said her brother will pass them out to the people who need them and would perhaps respond.

"The kids are really excited to get a response," said Turner.

She said that she hopes that a lot of the service personnel who receive the students' letters will write back, and that will be the best motivation for students to write again in the future.

"Hopefully, as we receive letters ... e-mails, I'll read them to the kids and it'll spur them on to do it," said Turner

On this day, the 23 students of Turner's class prepared many items to send to their new friends overseas, letters asking a litany of questions like, "How are you?" "What do you eat?" and "What are you doing?"

Olivia Rodriguez said she hopes the soldiers will ask her questions in return.

"They'll ask me how tall I am and other stuff," she said.

When asked if she had any in particular to say to the Marines, Rodriguez said, "I want them to be careful."

One girl drew a picture of a river, hoping perhaps the soldiers will take solace in her depiction of an oasis as they are in the midst of a desert.

Some students had deep concerns for the men and women they wrote.

"I feel really bad for them," said Jared Wenke. "I've heard that they don't have any showers or nothing."

And some are closer to the war than others.

"I know two people over there and they've known me ever since I was a baby," said Kelsey Madsen. But she said that she won't worry herself with their safety.

"I know that God's with them."

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