Young pen pals' hero gets patriotic welcome

Visit: A soldier visits pupils at a Baltimore elementary school to thank them for letters of support during his tour of duty in Iraq.

May 08, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In a hot and dusty Iraqi town this year, Sgt. 1st Class Frederick Gatling, a newlywed, would often find himself in the middle of nowhere, eagerly awaiting a package from an unlikely source: Mary E. Rodman Elementary School in West Baltimore.

Usually, the packet contained handwritten letters, scrawled in earnest by caring, curious fourth- and fifth-graders in Kevin Forman and Dorothy McManus' classrooms. One happy day, the package was filled with chocolate chip cookies and cherry Kool-Aid.

The letters, Gatling said, inspired and motivated the platoon leader when he was tired or feeling low. In the middle of the war, the concern of 53 children gave him and his soldiers a reason to smile.

So it was a touching turn of events yesterday when the fourth- and fifth-graders found themselves in the middle of the school's library eagerly awaiting Gatling, the pen pal and hero they had never met but had come to love.

"He's doing a job to make us safe, so we won't die," said fifth-grader Brandon Hall, 10. "And he deserved to get the good letters that we wrote."

Gatling arrived yesterday to a patriotic welcome at the school at 3510 W. Mulberry St. The school's library was decked out in red, white and blue, and the staff served him and the elementary school children the most American of lunchtime cuisine: hot dogs.

At 5 feet 10 inches and 238 pounds in his desert camouflage, a black Stetson hat and tightly laced boots with jingling spurs, Gatling was a celebrity to the pupils, most of whom have seen soldiers only on television.

"Here he comes! Here he comes!" said one fifth-grade girl, peering around the hallway corner. "Oooh, he's tall!"

The children were quiet as Gatling, a member of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, told them why he flew from his home in Fort Carson, Colo. - in the middle of his 30-day leave - to meet with them.

"I really thank you. We all really thank you," Gatling, 38, said. "The letters you wrote, I shared them with the other soldiers, so everyone could get a smile, not just me. It's important to know that if you write letters, or say a prayer at night, or if you're just thinking about someone [in the war], we really appreciate that."

One letter, Gatling remembered, made him laugh for days.

"She asked me, `Are you still alive?'" he said. "It was so sweet. Just the innocence."

Gatling, an Army man for 19 years, said his time in Iraq, including a week in Fallujah, was void of innocence. Even the country's children, he said, are hardened by war. Gatling spent many months frustrated and depressed.

"Sometimes I'd think, `Why are they so mean to us? We're trying to do good for them,'" he said.

Gatling's aunt, Jean Weaver, a kindergarten teacher at Mary E. Rodman, suggested last spring that the fourth- and fifth-graders write her nephew to keep his spirits up.

The letter-writing campaign didn't benefit only Gatling. The pupils practiced their writing skills and learned firsthand about Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their interest in the war grew throughout the year and sparked discussions.

"It's really Iraq's and America's fault that we're fighting this war," said Nicholas Woodham, 9. "Because Americans were bringing weapons over to Iraq."

"They was?" asked an incredulous Brandon Hall.

"Yup," Nicholas said.

"But they started it with us, with the Twin Towers," Brandon argued.

"Well," chimed in Daniel Curtis, 10, "whoever started it, when they didn't find no weapons of mass destruction over in Iraq, George Bush should've just left it alone."

Gatling did his best to explain to the pupils that although wars are scary and should only be used as a last resort, he still felt honored to be an American soldier in Iraq.

"Personally, I don't like war," he told them, after recounting how he was injured by shrapnel while riding in a tank that hit a land mine. "But ... it was my job. It was what I swore to do when I... took an oath to serve my country."

But after the U.S. flag was presented as a gift to the school and the pictures were snapped, Daniel Curtis was steady in his belief that the grown-ups in charge should never have sent Gatling to war.

"I still think George Bush made a stupid decision," Daniel said. "And that's just my opinion."

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