War comes home for school children

A very special packet of letters is heading to the Middle East.

Written by Jacks Valley Elementary School kindergarten students and their third-grade "buddies," the letters offer a pint-sized view of what freedom means.

Teacher Laura Williams came up with the idea as a way to honor the memory of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Robert Rodgers, who was killed May 30 when his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.

Rodgers' oldest daughter Madison was a student in Williams' class in 2005 and Rodgers and his wife Casey volunteered frequently in the classroom.

Casey Rodgers, 29, was one of the first students at Jacks Valley Elementary when it opened in the mid-1980s.

"When Josh was killed, it hit pretty close to home," Williams said.

When she learned that Rodgers' uncle Mike McElfish was looking for personal letters to send to soldiers with flash suppressers he was donating as safety devices, she decided to enlist her students' help.

Williams planned the event with third grade students Kathleen Sherbon and Susan Harmon.

"All three of us jointly coordinated the effort to learn about freedom, write the letters about what freedom means, and make the star pins to send to the soldiers," Williams said.

By the end of the day Friday, she had collected 42 letters and 42 paper badges the students created. Each letter was accompanied by a picture of the author and buddy.

"It's pretty heavy duty," Williams said of the subject, "but they got it."

She began the project by reading "America Is" to her students to introduce them to the concept of freedom.

One little girl's father was on his way Iraq, so the students had an idea of what it felt like to have a parent a long way from home.

What made the afternoon special was that Casey Rodgers, Rodgers' mother Debbie Walker, his father-in-law Ron Gilder and uncle Mike McElfish also visited the class.

Williams used a globe to show how far away Iraq is. McElfish explained the letters would take about 10 days - almost half way to Halloween - to reach the soldiers.

She explained to students that in America, they are free to wear anything they want while in some countries girls can't wear shorts.

"Your never going to believe this, but in some places that aren't free, children can't go to school," Williams said.

Rodgers' niece was in Williams' class last year and his nephew Christian Barajas is a third-grade buddy this year.

Christian worked with his kindergarten buddy, 5-year-old Paige Nelms.

He wears a bracelet which honors Rodgers.

"It tells about Uncle Josh and how he was brave," Christian said.

Christian and Paige wrote their soldier that "America is free," "I can eat ice cream, I can wear pants, I can play Barbies and kick ball, I can go to Wal-Mart, and I can go to Target with Aunt Casey."

As he colored a abstract flag on his blue paper badge, Brandon Hernandez, 8, said if he had the chance, he would like to say, "Thank you for everything you've done for keeping America free."

That was the concept Williams said she was hoping to instill in the children.

"There is a common theme of 'thank-you' and freedom that they all understand," she said.

Casey Rodgers said she was happy to see Williams again and be at the school which brought back happy memories of her own school days and the time Madison spent in kindergarten.

"Madison loved Mrs. Williams," she said. "I was over here volunteering every week and Josh would come when he could."

McElfish told the students he hoped the soldiers would write back,.

"Thank you all so much," he said as he collected the letters and pins. "You've made some soldiers very happy."


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