June 11, 2007

Letters and gifts from Iraq

One second grade class gets to know an Army soldier in Iraq

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Corresponding with and receiving souvenirs from a US soldier fighting in Iraq, has been a highlight this year for one Cokato Elementary class.

Sherri Smith’s second grade class has been writing to a pen pal – an American soldier currently fighting in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Milton Hodge, Kentucky, has been writing back and forth to Smith’s class since December. Along with the letters, Hodge sends the students personalized gifts from Iraq.

Some of the gifts include Army hats, a bandana with the soldiers’ creed embroidered on it, an engraved cartouche (a necklace with each of their names written in Arabic), and most recently, Iraqi soccer uniforms.

On June 1, the class was able to partake in a video conference with Hodge via the Internet.

The class went live with Hodge at 9 a.m. right in the classroom. Using a web cam, the students were able to see him, and he could see them.

During the conference, Hodge explained the different slides he created of equipment and buildings on the forward operating base (FOB) in Q-West, Iraq, as well as other aspects of his job as a soldier.

His main job in Iraq is rebuilding infrastructures the US previously destroyed in war.

The kids sang to Hodge “God Bless the USA,” Sean Beste recited a poem he wrote, and Spencer Flood explained a tree that will be planted in honor of the US service people in Iraq.

Cokato Elementary Principal Lorene Force had a chance to speak with Hodge as well. She told him she was really glad he keeps in touch with the students and that she is looking forward to meeting him in person some day.

The class also received an Iraqi flag with each of their names embroidered on it. The flag was made by an Iraqi translator for the US who learned how to speak, write, and read English from the soldiers. It reads: Soldiers of the war on terrorism Cokato Elementary supporting Iraqi Freedom.

“He’s been so nice to these kids,” Smith said.

Hodge writes personal letters to each one of the students. He even told Smith he has seen an improvement in their penmanship.

“I learned a lot from him. He taught us new words from Iraq. And he was a great friend, not for just sending us stuff, but being nice to all the classmates. He writes us little cards and gives us big gifts,” said Sydney Dennis, student.

The student’s have enjoyed hearing from Hodge and many will miss it, although some will continue to write him in their free time.

“It’s been fun. And you can write to him anytime because we have his address. I like how he gets us all the presents without us asking, and it’s been such a big surprise,” said Spencer Flood, student.

Before joining the Army, Hodge taught elementary math from 1987 to 1992 and finds satisfaction in corresponding with the students.

“I think that some people are educators, like coaches. Find me a really good coach and I’ll find you a great teacher. I like learning and sharing my knowledge. If you share it, and see that people appreciate it, and are interested in it, and respond to it, there is satisfaction in that,” Hodge said.

Smith believes having a soldier as a penpal teaches the students about Iraq and its culture, and that not every Iraqi is the enemy.

“Many people look at Iraq as being the enemy. There are people over there who live regular lives and not all of them are the enemy,” Smith said.

Many parents of the second grade students think this has been a great opportunity for the kids.

“This is a great way to support the war. It makes it real to our kids,” said Chad Kirchoff.

“Andrew enjoyed corresponding with Hodge. The gifts he received were very special. Andrew was impressed with being able to see Hodge all the way from Iraq and the Army trucks and planes. He also talked about Sgt. Arnold, Hodge’s friend who was recently hurt. Planting a tree to remember soldiers in Iraq was a thoughtful thing to do. Andrew loves the USA and wants to live in a free country,” according to notes from the Schwab family.

Smith also believes this is helping Hodge take his mind off the war as well. Hodge lives in Kentucky and is expected to return home in September.

“These kids won’t forget the war,” Smith said.

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