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Holiday marks one-year anniversary of friendship with school’s adopted troops

Langley Middle School students Stephanie Otteman and Norah Helley work on the next set of Memorial Day Cards for deployed troops. - Michaela Marx Wheatley
Langley Middle School students Stephanie Otteman and Norah Helley work on the next set of Memorial Day Cards for deployed troops.
— image credit: Michaela Marx Wheatley

LANGLEY — It’s been one year this Memorial Day since an unusual friendship began between a group of Langley middle schoolers and two service men on deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, a sixth-grade class in Langley made Memorial Day cards and send them to troops abroad. Over the summer, letters and photos were sent back and the youngsters forged a friendship with Rick Rottman, a specialist with the Army National Guard deployed to Iraq, and with Ray Griffith, a Navy chief petty officer at Forward Operating Base Apache in Qalat, Afghanistan.

“They say ‘thank you’ for what we are doing,” said Stephanie Otteman, 11.

“It’s just nice to see that our stuff makes some type of difference in somebody’s day,” said Scarlet Inches, 11.

The students have also learned a thing or two about life in the military.

“I learned that they’re all together like a family and share stuff — like the packages,” said Norah Helley, 12.

“I learned that they don’t have a whole lot to do down there and that they like watching movies,” Stephanie added.

But the students also learned about the countries and cultures where the two are serving.

“They like helping the kids,” Stephanie said. “They look scary to the kids and they like to make friends with them.”

“Yes, and give them stuffed animals,” Norah added.

The class wanted to help, and sent packages with toys and Beanie Babies to Afghanistan.

Among the pictures and letters that were exchanged were a few that the students said were extra special.

The flag displayed in the school’s front hall flew during a rocket attack by the Taliban, for example. Griffith sent the flag to the children.

Rottman also sent them a flag from Iraq.

“That was pretty cool,” Norah said.

Norah said their buddy Ray also worked on humanitarian projects.

“Ray, he built a well,” she said. “They do a lot of stuff.”

The interest ignited by the friendship with two total strangers continues after school. Stephanie said she has researched the countries on the Internet.

While the kids certainly enjoyed the exchange, the appreciation goes both ways.

Griffith said he was hooked when care packages from strangers started arriving for the troops only three weeks into his deployment to Afghanistan.

The cards from Langley Middle School stood out to him.

Griffith, who returned only days ago to his home in Albuquerque, N.M. where he is a fireman, said he was deeply touched by the honest concern the children expressed about his safety and how his own children felt about him being gone.

“There were letters that just articulated the spirit and camaraderie of being American,” he said.

Once the correspondence took off, it was a lot of fun.

“The kids were lovin’ it,” he said. “They were so proud voicing their support.”

He said seeing children so young expressing themselves despite the influence of negative media reports made him proud.

“I am sensing so much patriotism from them. There are adults who don’t show patriotism like that,” Griffith said.

Rottman said the reason he kept up the relationship with the students and their school was that the kids told all soldiers deployed how much they enjoy the freedom that they have.

“Each of them had their own way of stating that they enjoyed writing to the soldiers, and they also started to tell me a little bit about themselves and their families. And, of course, I told them a little bit about me,” Rottman said in an e-mail from Iraq.

Rottman said the soldiers deployed overseas are role models for kids at home and also in the country where they serve.

“I am hoping to teach them that you can do anything in life that you put your mind to it. Another thing is not to take your freedom for granted because most (people) want to come to America because we have what they want,” he said.

Rottman has written hundreds of letters in recent weeks, addressing each child’s question.

“The reason that I wrote to each and every student is that they wrote me, so that is the least I could do. They put time and effort into their cards and letters,” he explained. “Besides I enjoyed writing them and answering their questions.”

After all the letters, the class is looking forward to visits from their new friends.

Griffith plans a visit in early June to Whidbey Island so he can meet the friends who stuck with him through his year-long deployment. He said he is coming to say thank you in person.

“It’s the least I can do,” he said.

The students are excited to meet him. They’re making plans and cooking up a few surprises, too.

“It’s nice to get letters, it’s nicer to meet face to face,” Norah explained.

The students plan a community potluck open to the public, a welcome assembly with a photo show, and Griffith will visit classrooms while he is here to share his experiences.

All are welcome at the potluck at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 14 in the Langley Middle School cafeteria.

Rottman will visit Whidbey Island in September.

“To actually see the students and staff that have written me throughout this deployment - I think it is an honor how much they care about the soldiers that are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Rottman said.

Both men said after the kids supported them through a long deployment, a visit is the least they can do.

“If the students can take time out to write me, the least I can do is visit them and thank them personally. They all were great, no matter how detailed the card/letter was or how basic it was. All the cards/letters that they sent touched my heart deeply, knowing that someday they will be in charge of this country,” Rottman said.

Rachel Kizer, a middle school science teacher and the sponsor of the project, said she is proud of the students.

“It started with sixth-grade cards last Memorial Day in my classes, but has continued with our seventh-graders also making cards and sending letters through the year,” Kizer said.

It has now turned into a school-wide project. Other teachers have helped keep it going, like Mary Bakeman and Lynne Malecki. Rosie Donnelly has also done cards and letters this year in the sixth grade. And the eighth-graders in Leslie Hoelting’s classes have sent cards and notes to troops, as well.

“She keeps in touch especially with our local kids over there,” Kizer said.

“Our staff and students collected items for the Treats for Troops boxes and donations came from the community, too. Girl Scout Troop 1990 collected Girl Scout cookies which we sent to Rick and Ray for them,” she said.

“I still marvel at the friendships created from cards sent last year to say thank you to our troops,” Kizer said. “It is amazing how much this small gesture has affected the morale of the troops we connected with over a national holiday.”

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