Roland Park Elementary students gather around Jason Frantom… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
The cards arrived in Afghanistan right around the day that Spc. Christopher Coffland would have turned 44.
"It was a tough time," said his Army company mate, Jason Frantom, speaking almost a year later to the Roland Park Elementary students who sent the greeting of comfort and thanks after Coffland was killed.
The men in Coffland's Army company had not had time to grieve him properly. He was a unique spirit who had played professional football in Finland, hunted crocodiles while living with a Pygmy tribe in Africa and volunteered for the Army Reserves a month before reaching the cutoff age of 42.
Then, a few weeks into their tour, the fascinating character from Baltimore was gone, killed by a roadside bomb on Nov. 13, 2009.
Seven thousand miles away from the war zone, Coffland's death also devastated Robbie Franklin, a second-grader at the school. Coffland had been close with Robbie's father since high school, and he loved to watch football with the boy. Asked last year to prepare a Thanksgiving project on an underappreciated community helper, Robbie wrote about his fallen friend.
"When he served our country, he died as a hero fighting in Afghanistan," he told his classmates.
Upon hearing the normally shy boy read with confidence, teacher Karen Schaefer wanted to do more with his sentiment. She decided the whole class should send a holiday greeting to the soldiers who had served with Coffland.
"As I held back my tears, I could not stop thinking about how much this meant to Robbie and our immediate community," she wrote. "I wanted to share this with you all, so I had these cards made up to let you know that we truly appreciated all that you do for our community as well as our country."
Coffland's company mates received the cards in early January.
They returned home a few months ago and on Wednesday, his friends Frantom and Brian Conklin visited Robbie and the class.
"I would just like to say thank you so much for writing that about our friend," said Frantom, dressed in his Army camouflage.
Frantom said the cards touched him as a sign of Coffland's wide impact. "For that 8-year-old boy to express those things, what a profound relationship that was," he said. "Obviously, he had an impact on that kid."
After thanking the students, now third-graders, Frantom and Conklin fielded questions about their time in Afghanistan. As the kids tried on sample Afghan hats, they asked where the soldiers slept, why they wore green, what they ate and if they kept pets.
The answers, respectively, were: on the ground or a cot, to hide while crawling through the bushes, Pop-Tarts and yes, a couple of goats.
The class let out a horrified "Oh!" when told the Cartoon Network was unavailable in the Afghan countryside.
Students also asked more sobering questions. Why are we fighting? Were you scared?
"You guys need to remember, the country was founded off of people like Mr. Coffland, who fought so you guys could go to school and go to root for the Ravens on Sunday," Conklin said.
Afghan citizens want the same stability, he said in explaining the war.
Coffland's parents, his sister and Robbie's parents looked on from the back of the classroom. They have taken comfort from meeting Coffland's returning company mates.
"They told me how he achieved things, how fast he had integrated into the villages over there," Dave Coffland said. "It made me feel better that he was very good at what he did."
"I just wanted to touch them because they were the last people to physically be with Chris," said his sister, Lynn Coffland. "They carry my brother's spirit, which is very, very comforting."
Frantom and Conklin, in turn, said they're finally getting to work through their sorrow. On the anniversary of his death, they went with the family to Arlington National Cemetery to visit his grave. They remember Coffland as an eclectic, engaging personality who always stepped up for difficult tasks.
"He was just larger than life itself," said Brooklyn Park resident Conklin. "But he could relate to everybody."
"He had so much life experience that when he walked into a room, it just radiated off of him," said Frantom, who lives in Annapolis. "The fact that he dropped everything he was doing to join the Reserves when he knew he was going to be deployed, that was pretty unusual."
In honor of the anniversary, friends and family members announced the creation of the Christopher Coffland Memorial Fund, which will support returning soldiers who need physical rehabilitation, emotional counseling and career training.
"We just felt that Chris would be really into giving to soldiers who are coming back from war," said Willie Franklin, Robbie's dad. Franklin said friends and family have raised about $4,000 in the week since announcing the fund.
The ripples from Coffland's life may be felt in other ways.
When he met the soldier's mother, Toni Coffland, for the first time, Conklin told her that if his next child is a boy, he will name him Chris.
"I miss him a great deal," he said Wednesday. "Even though I outranked him, I looked up to him."
In the classroom, both soldiers spoke of their hope that the kids would never have to identify with losing a friend so abruptly. One student asked Conklin if he had been hurt in Afghanistan.
"No," he said. "I was lucky."