Like most second-graders, the ones at Willard Elementary in Ridgewood, N.J., never really thought much about the war in Iraq -- but that changed this winter, when they decided to write Valentine's Day cards to an American Marine serving there.
Their curiosity came out as they read aloud from their letters:
"Dear Russ, happy Valentine's Day. …"
"Dear Russ, nice work in the war. Where are you? …"
"Do you have a dog? Do you have any kids? …"
"What's war like? I can't wait to hear back from you. …"
"My 6-year-old sister's name is Justine, and I like to call her 'just mean.' …"
"When I grow up, I might join the Army. …"
"Are you married? Thank you for helping our country. …"
"My name is Aiden. How old are you? We do math. Do you do math? …"
'Touch of Home'
At that time, Lt. Col. Russ Jamieson was in Mosul, helping to train Iraqi soldiers.
"The city of Mosul was still a very dangerous town," he said. "Three Iraqi battalions under this brigade that I was advising. A couple of units taking fire that particular day. Some Iraqi soldiers wounded. And one killed."
The package from New Jersey came on a particularly violent day.
"Getting that handwritten or hand-drawn Valentine's Day card while you're finishing up a pretty tough day was that touch of home that you missed," he said. "And just the simple questions that only kids can ask. The direct, simple questions, meant the world."
Just as the children wrote individual letters to him, Jamieson wrote personal notes to them.
"When we got a response, it was like, you know, the biggest present you could receive," said Delores Sullivan, a teacher. "They were so excited. And that he individualized every single thing for them and answered every single question for them was unbelievable. Just blew their minds."
Some answers were simple.
"I like numbers because they don't change. Do you like numbers?" Jamieson wrote. "I don't have a dog right now but I once did. My dog's name was Misty and she was a German Shepherd."
Other answers were complicated, more difficult for second-graders to understand.
"You asked what war is like," Jamieson wrote. "And I'll let your parents help explain that to you. For now, let me say that war is a very ugly thing. It's not something you want to be in because people get hurt. I hope that my being here now will prevent you from having to see war."
At the Pentagon on 9/11
Jamieson said he is fighting this war because of Sept. 11, 2001. He was stationed at the Pentagon when the terrorists struck. But he was sitting far enough from the impact to survive.
It was one reason Will Wodenchuck's letter touched him so deeply. Will lost his father on Sept. 11 -- one of the 12 people in this small town to die in the World Trade Center -- and Jamieson wrote a special response.
"Will, the reason I'm over here is because of what happened on 11 September," Jamieson wrote. "I was in the Pentagon that day and I remember. I'm over here for everyone hurt by what happened that day. And I'm over here for you. I know you miss your father very much. And I know he's very, very proud of you. You take good care of your family. And be very strong. Okay?"
Will appreciated the response.
"It made me feel happy and good," he said. "I didn't think he was going to write back. But he did."
At the end of May, Jamieson came home from Iraq to his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Paige. He would return to Camp Lejeune, N.C. The letter project in New Jersey would end. But the connection was made. He saved all the letters.
"These were special," he said. "They took a lot of time and effort. I hope I made some lifelong friends. And I look forward to meeting each and every one of these kids. I do know that the same lesson we're going to try to impart in our daughter -- and that is, take the time to write, take the time to appreciate those in public service."
The letters spawned memories for Colleen Sullivan, the mother of Aiden, one of the Willard second-graders.
"I immediately thought of a project that I did when I was in third grade where we wrote to a Marine in Vietnam," she said. "For many years, I wondered what had happened to him, and not in a positive way. I had always thought that something unfortunate had happened to him because at the end of my third-grade year, he went missing, and we didn't hear back from him. So, we ended the year not knowing what had happened to him."
For Sullivan, a remarkable search was about to begin.
"Sitting in my daughter's class," she said, "I was just having flashback after flashback."
Flashbacks to 1971. The war in Vietnam was raging. A revolution was being played out on America's streets.
But in a quiet New Jersey suburb, Colleen Sullivan was a third-grader at a Catholic school just 20 minutes from where her daughter goes to school now.
"Back then, you didn't see as much on television," she said. "You didn't read as much. I think our parents somewhat protected us from the war."
'He Was Everything'
To put a face on that war, she and her class began writing to a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam whom she knew only as Lt. Wright. He became her hero.
"He was everything," she said. "I carried his picture around. And he was my boyfriend to all the other 7-year-olds on the block. And he was this person who talked to us in terms that nobody else did. I mean, he spoke the language of war, but did so in a way that we understood. Whereas … I don't remember my parents sitting down and saying, 'Well, this is what war is about.'
"His letters opened up a whole new world for us," she said. "We really learned about what was going on in Vietnam. And he brought the war home. And I think it made all of us, all of the children in my class, think about the war in a much different way.
"We just sat on the edges of our seats when our teacher would read the letters," she added. "I mean, when she walked in and she was waving that letter, you couldn't contain our excitement. There was just silence in the class. And she would read the letters. And we were waiting to hear our names."
But before the war was over, Lt. Wright's letters suddenly stopped. Sullivan's teacher sent one last desperate appeal for news.
"Dear Lt. Wright," the letter read. "Fears, hope, all kinds of thoughts are swirling around me. … Have you come home, lieutenant? Are you all right? School reopens in a few weeks. Thirty-two anxious faces and countless questions will be waiting for me. If all is well, please, God, just send a postcard."
But there was no postcard, no word. Just that last letter, sent around the world, finally returned to sender. For all these years, Sullivan saved the lieutenant's letters, afraid to find out what had happened to him.
"I had visited Washington and went to the wall for the first time, and can remember very clearly walking down to the end," Sullivan said. "And I just couldn't go, because I was afraid that that, again, would end my fantasy of him being alive. And the hero of my third-grade class not having made it was too much. So, I never looked and I just turned and walked away.
Search for Lt. Wright
Now, inspired by her daughter, Sullivan contacted a Marine friend who set out to find him.
"They didn't have very much luck," Sullivan said. "We did not know Lt. Wright's first name. We didn't know where he was living. He was in Vietnam. Then, he was in Tokyo. And so, we didn't have a lot of specifics to go on."
For several months, they searched for Lt. Wright. There were just a few clues. He once lived in California, had family in Virginia, but they found nothing.
"I received a phone call from the gentleman who was trying to track down Lt. Wright," Sullivan said. "He said, 'Colleen, the search is off. We've come to the assumption that he was using an alias and that, you know, we probably won't be able to find him.' "
So, after years of wondering, Sullivan's search seemed to be over.
"That was Friday morning," Sullivan said. "Friday evening, I was out with my husband and the cell phone rang. And it was one of the people who had been searching for him, screaming into the phone: 'Didn't you check your e-mail? Didn't you check your e-mail? They found him. They found him.'
"I'm like, 'They found him?' " she said. "I couldn't say anything. … I was just, 'They found him and he's alive. And he's well. And he survived.' "
Back in Touch
After more than 30 years, Sullivan sat down to write one more letter to her Marine.
"Dear Lt. Wright," she read from her letter. "Over 30 years ago, my third-grade class corresponded with a United States Marine serving in Vietnam. The children in my grade waited in anticipation, every week, every day, for word from one Lt. Wright. Fast-forward 30-plus years. And once again, our country's at war. Life comes full circle. And my daughter, Aiden, is now faced with the same social, moral, and political challenges my generation faced. I can't tell you how much your letters affected me and all of my classmates. Our class talked on a daily basis about your wife, your dog Pupper. We prayed for your safety. I would love to hear how your life turned out. Would love to hear from you."
It turned out Lt. Dick Wright had been around all along, with his wife, Diane, whom he married before heading to Vietnam.
"In fact, I didn't ask her," Wright said. "I told her I was going to marry her. And she told me she never wanted to see me again."
She evidently changed her mind.
Wright went on to fly helicopters in the Coast Guard. He even helped found the rescue swimmer program. And he, too, had saved the letters from Sullivan's class. But her e-mail, 30 years later, took his breath away.
"It came like a bolt out of the blue," Wright said. "I couldn't believe my eyes when I read it. It was just beautiful."
And then, he wrote her back.
"I don't think 15 minutes went by," Wright said. "I stopped what I was doing at work and immediately responded. 'Oh, Colleen, you have made my day. And you have brought back so many memories. Indeed, I am that Marine.' "
"I just cried at my desk," Sullivan said. "I just cried. Nothing more can be said. It was just the e-mail. It was the letter that I was hoping to receive. And that he turned out to be such a wonderful person was the icing on the cake."
It turns out Wright was on a secret mission.
"I guess I can talk about it now," he said.
He can talk about what happened in January 1972. Wright was flying a classified mission along the border of Vietnam, delivering special forces into Laos, when he was shot down. For more than two minutes, Wright was trapped underwater, thinking he might die.
"For a moment, I said, 'This can't be the end. I've got too much to do,' " Wright said. "So, many thoughts went through my mind."
On that very day in New Jersey, Sullivan and her classmates had written him Valentine's Day cards. Months later, in his last letter to the class, he credited them for saving his life.
"A very strange thing has happened, children, that makes you dearer than I can ever say," he read from his note. "I note that your Valentine's Cards were written on 27 January. On 27 January, I was flying a mission deep in the rugged mountains west of Danang. My aircraft was hit and I was forced to crash land in a river. The helicopter sank to the bottom of the river, and for about two minutes I was pinned inside the cockpit. I struggled but could not get loose. Then, very strangely, and I cannot even now explain how, I was free. I swam to the surface. And that first breath of air was so wonderful. Now, I have never been very religious or close to God. But when I saw your cards were written the very same day I needed God, I honestly felt God like I never had before. It seems more than I can understand, but perhaps, just perhaps, your prayers gave me life. It sounds very dramatic, I know. But it honestly happened this way. And Mrs. Krug, a special thanks to you for having brought these wonderful, charming, happy children to me. It was a most beautiful gesture. I love children so much. And these kids are great. May God bless you all. Your friend, Lt. Wright."
Said Sullivan: "The fantasy that I'd dreamed about completely came true. He was alive. He was still married to his wife. He had a wonderful family. And he remembered us. And he kept our letters. And we played, according to Lt. Wright, a really big role, in his spirit when he was in Vietnam. I mean, to know that we played as big a role in his life as he played in ours, it was the perfect ending to the perfect story."
Face to Face
Right before school let out for summer vacation, Lt. Col. Russ Jamieson drove all the way from Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Ridgewood, N.J., to meet his pen pals in person.
"I wanted to come all this way up from North Carolina to tell you, thank you very much for your letters," he told the class. "That meant a lot.
He presented the flag that flew over his command post in Mosul to Will Wodenchuck.
This time, he answered their questions face-to-face.
"Where did you get a burn on your arm when your jeep was bombed?" one student asked.
"I was burned, actually, on the back of my neck," Jamieson said.
"Did anyone else get a burn?" asked a young girl.
"I had about six men hurt," Jamieson said.
"Did you ever shoot somebody with a gun?" another child asked
"Did I, Jason?" Jamieson said. "No, I did not."
"Who is winning the war so far?" a student asked.
"The Iraqis are winning the war," Jamieson answered. "The Iraqis have over 25 million people that, for the first time in January, voted."
As for Lt. Wright, his scrapbook just gained another chapter.
"I certainly would love to include Colleen's letter," he said. "As a matter of fact, I might even frame it and put it on the wall. I guess every serviceman has memories."
But Sullivan still has not met Lt. Dick Wright, the hero of her childhood.
"I don't know if I'm ready," she said. "I just think it's going to be pretty emotional to meet him. I think that a lot of the memories of that time and that place will come up."
Still, the notion is not lost on Sullivan that both she and her daughter have found solace in their letters to troops in two controversial wars, a generation apart.
"The irony of this situation is somewhat unfortunate because we are at war," Sullivan said. "But I'm hoping that if she does have her daughter write to a military person, it's just because he's serving in a foreign country in times of peace. Because the thought of knowing that we will be in this situation again 30 years from now, I would hope that wasn't going to happen."
ABC News' Bob Woodruff originally reported this story on Aug. 3, 2005.