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? …"
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."
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."