In late December at a memorial park in Texas, friends and family gathered to lay to rest an American soldier.
He had died in Iraq and is one of thousands of soldiers to be buried. But, before he died, this soldier's life had been touched by a young girl in Lodi.
At Restland Memorial Park, outside of Dallas, the family of Army soldier Brian Lee Mintzlaff heard the words from a Christmas letter he had received just days before dying in Iraq.
"Thank you for saving our country," the letter said. "God bless you."
The little girl who wrote the letter is Heaven Lambert, 10, a fourth-grader at Borchardt Elementary School in Lodi.
Four years into the war in Iraq, student letter-writing campaigns meant to boost the morale of soldiers have become commonplace. Last November and December, the Lodi Post Office sent more than 1,000 packages to troops overseas.
One of those letters to a soldier, however, touched lives in Iraq, Lodi and Texas.
"I thought it was fun and it would make them happy," Heaven said of the letter she wrote to Mintzlaff. "He died. It made me sad."
Like a hundred of her thirdand fourth-grade schoolmates, Heaven was given the name of a soldier to write to.
She found out Jan. 29 "her soldier" had died. Her mom Beth Lambert received a call from Borchardt Principal Janice Morehead.
Mintzlaff, 34, died Dec. 18 in Taji after his Bradley vehicle was in a roll-over accident.
In October, Borchardt parent Kimberly Haynes proposed a letter-writing project to help remember the troops during the holidays. Her 10-year-old daughter Carly Haynes is in Sandy Gessner-Crabtree's fourth-grade class.
Haynes' friend, Army 1st Sgt. James Carter, is in a unit of 118 men in Iraq. They were deployed Oct. 30, 2006, from Fort Hood, Texas. The "Annihilators" are Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
A package of letters, along with some treats and gifts, arrived in Taji, Iraq, in mid-December.
The two or three notes each troop received "was a great lift of spirits at the time due to the separation we endured while being deployed," Carter said in an e-mail to the News-Sentinel.
Shortly after receiving the letters, however, he had to e-mail Borchardt teachers to say some of his soldiers had been killed or wounded.
By e-mail, Haynes said she was glad the project helped create personal connections between students and soldiers, but mournful that some of the soldiers had died or were injured.
"Last time First Sergeant Carter went to Iraq it wasn't like this. They didn't lose any soldiers. Granted it was dangerous and we were worried, but it is totally a different war now three years later," she said.
Spc. Luis Ayala of South Gate, Calif., and a Department of Defense interpreter named Gino were killed in a Dec. 28 insurgent attack in Taji.
It was Christmas Day that Pfc. James Ontano of Fall River Mills, Calif., and the unit's commander, Capt. C.J. Kirkpatrick, were wounded in action and returned home to recover. Ontano has since had a second child and is living in Fall River Mills.
Gessner-Crabtree said students asked many good questions in their letters and gave support through their words. She said this is the first time she's heard of casualties in the group they wrote to.
"Writing touches people in a way no other medium can because the kids are given a name and when you write to a person using their family given name suddenly the world becomes closer and what matters in this life becomes clear," she said.
Beth Lambert tries as best she can to explain the war and the soldier's death in a way her 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son will understand.
"That brought up more questions about war and politics, and it's hard to break it down. I don't even understand it all myself," she said.
Beth said Heaven is hesitant to write another letter because she didn't want to get another phone call that her soldier died.
"I think it's (writing letters to troops) great and children should know what's going on in the world, but I think we as parents need to be more prepared for the questions that our children are coming home with," she said.
While she may not understand war, Heaven still thinks of the soldier she knew briefly and who is now buried in Texas.
Heaven says a prayer each night for "her soldier" and his family. She wants to write to them and let them know she's thinking of them.
Lodi letter-writing projectsStudents in other Lodi Unified schools are working on letters, or have sent packages to troops over the holidays.
• Jill Battaglia, of Lodi, "adopted" the 200 or so soldiers in her brother's Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Students at Reese Elementary wrote letters, made friendship bracelets and sent care packages and letters for Christmas 2005 and Thanksgiving 2006.
• At Beckman Elementary, bilingual instructional aide Olga Noble worked with second-grade teacher Phyllis Jaeger to start a pen-pal project. Noble's son, Daniel Noble, is a staff sergeant and medic with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Afghanistan.
• Lawrence Elementary fifthand sixth-grade teachers Pirkko "P.K." Burns sent letters to troops about a month ago.
• In each case, teacher, parent or family member said they were touched by the story of a local soldier and wanted to get involved.
Web sites providing further information: http://www.americasupportsyou.mil http://www.soldiersangels.org
First published: Tuesday, February 20, 2007