When Alana Stuit sat down to write her first letter to a soldier in Iraq, she jotted down a list of questions and drew a brightly colored picture she thought might cheer him up.
The Countryside Elementary School student and her fourth-grade class wrote to Dominic Rossi, a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Iraq for the past several months.
"I had so many questions I wanted to ask him, like what’s his favorite color, what he did in his spare time," Alana said. "And I told him about what we were doing class, told him about my friends and family. It was really neat."
Rossi, who returned from Iraq to his hometown of Chicago, Ill., in late April, visited Alana’s class Wednesday, June 6, to say thank you to his pen pals and participate in the school’s annual field day.
"He answered every single one of my questions," Alana said. "It was very exciting."
IN NOVEMBER, Terri Pendola began teaching her fourth-grade students about Virginia history. When she compared and contrasted life during war 400 years ago and wartime now, she got the idea to involve her nephew, 22-year-old Rossi, in the process.
"They wanted to ask him questions about what it is like in Iraq and just let them know that we’re thinking of them," Pendola said. "It was good letter-writing practice, too."
Pendola asked her students to imagine a world without the Internet. There was no way for family members to communicate with soldiers during war 400 years ago. Now, soldiers not only have access to their families via mail, but some soldiers have access the Internet and cellular phones to call and send e-mails to their friends and family. With their parents’ permission, the fourth-graders began writing letters to Rossi and his bunkmates.
As the months passed, the letters revolved around the soldiers' personal interests and words of encouragement from the students.
"They wanted to know what they liked to do for fun, things like that," Pendola said. "It was a good way to lift their spirits and get their mind off things for a little while. Dominic and the boys answered every single one of their questions."
WHEN ROSSI flew into the airport last week, he said he was anxious to see the fourth-graders at Countryside Elementary School.
"We looked forward to those letters," Rossi said. "At first, it was a big surprise and then it was something we looked forward to. It helped us get away a little bit."
When the letters from Sterling would arrive, Rossi and his six bunkmates would sit down, read them out loud and share stories and pictures. Then they would get to work writing each student back and answering all of their questions.
"It felt really good to say thanks to them in person," he said. "Those letters meant a lot to us."
Rossi served as a gunner on a humvee in Fallujah, Iraq. Since he’s been back, he said, he has been spending time with family.
"It’s been a big adjustment, but it’s good to be home," he said.
Rossi, who joined the Reserves in 2005, said he is waiting to hear if he will have to do a second tour of Iraq in the next several months.