The first letter took him five drafts and several days to write. Only after sitting down with a beer and staring at the piece of paper did James "Jim" Gouldin find the right things to say.
For a man as reticent as Gouldin, letter writing doesn't come easily. The idea of corresponding with a complete stranger whose life was on the line nearly stumped him.
But Gouldin overcame his writer's block by remembering how much letters meant to him while fighting in the Korean War. The 59-year-oldNavy veteran, who proudly wears his patriotism on his sleeve, wantedto help boost the spirits of the soldiers in the Persian Gulf.
Just before Thanksgiving, he mailed his first letter and a flag to Cpl. John S. Kennedy, the son of a friend at the American Legion Post 40 in Glen Burnie. Gouldin's mail list quickly mushroomed as tension mounted and more troops were sent in December.
By the time the UnitedStates and allied forces went to war, Gouldin was mailing letters and comics every other week to 15 Maryland troops. Most were relatives of American Legion members. But Gouldin also adopted two Marines who weren't receiving letters from relatives and sent extra copies for other lonely soldiers.
"I tried to praise them a little bit to keep their spirits up," he said. "I also tried to put some humor into the letters. I'd make jokes about things, especially (Saddam Hussein)."
Standing in the smoky basement lounge of his American Legion post, Gouldin fiddled with the yellow ribbon pinned to his sweat shirt as he tried to explain how it all started. For a private man who never married and had lost touch with some of his family, it was odd to end up sending 65 letters to strangers.
At first, he considered it his duty as the post historian and publicist. Swept up in the war fever, Gouldin, a longtime Glen Burnie resident, wanted to tell troops from his hometown that "the guys here were thinking about them."
He grew more emotionally involved with each letter. Watching news updates on the war and talking to his buddies at the post, Gouldin relived hisown military experience and identified with the troops.
"Being inthe ex-military, when you think about this guys, it's like a brotherand sister," he said. "It's like you're in them. You're part of them."
The letter-writing campaign even put Gouldin back in touch withhis family. The 12th name added to the mail list was Pfc. Jeff Kennedy, a 19-year-old nephew whom Gouldin hadn't seen for more than a decade. Though Gouldin had lost touch with his sister's grandson, he plans to invite Kennedy over for a beer when the troops come home.
Inwhat may well be his last missive to the 15 troops, Gouldin congratulated them on winning the war and promised a victory party would be held at the post in their honor.
He expressed disappointment that Saddam Hussein, whom he described as "the world's No. 1 brass a-- chicken," was still in power. But the rest of the letter captured the pride of American Legion Post 40.
"Everyone of you did a fantastic job, no matter what your job was," he wrote. "Come home just as soon as you can and stop by Post 40 one day when you have the time. . . . Godbless you, take care, and see you in the U.S.A."