A U.S. Army brigadier general who became unlikely pen pals with a group of kindergarten students when he was deployed in Iraq drove more than six hours to surprise those students, who are now high school seniors.
"It was a great relief for me to say thank you," Army Brigadier General Vincent Buggs told "Good Morning America." "Everyone is always saying thank you to me for my service but it meant more for me to be able to say thank you to them."
Buggs, who lives in Tampa, Florida, was deployed to Iraq three times in the early 2000s, including one deployment that lasted nearly one year.
During that time, he became pen pals with a group of kindergarten students at David Emanuel Academy, a small private school in Stillmore, Georgia, a town of less than 1,000 people, through a winding path that started at his college's alumni office.
Buggs stayed in touch with the alumni office of his alma mater, Georgia Southern University -- a college about 30 minutes from Stillmore -- to help maintain a sense of normalcy while he was deployed, asking about how the football team was doing and what was happening on campus.
During one conversation, a woman in the alumni office told Buggs that her niece's kindergarten class was doing a project with a gingerbread man to learn more about world geography. She asked if he would want to take pictures of the gingerbread man in Iraq, according to Sandra Mosley, the woman's sister-in-law and mother of a student in David Emanuel Academy's kindergarten class.
"He did better than that," Mosley recalled of Buggs. "He wrote a whole story about how the gingerbread man had stolen a camel’s water and how important water was to the region and how hot it was even there. He just went above and beyond."
"Maybe a month or so after all of that he emailed me and asked how the project came out and I told him it was great and that the students really enjoyed the story of the camel," she said. "Then he asked for their names and he had flags flown in Iraq for each of them and he sent those to all the kids."
The act by Buggs was such a big deal that a photo of the students holding their American flags was published in the local newspaper. It also started a pen pal relationship that has lasted for more than a decade.
The class of 13 students began sending Buggs notes and care packages. Buggs sent the students notes and treats from wherever he was stationed around the world over the years.
"I remember he would always send Kinder chocolates and that was so exciting," said Jenna Mosley, the now-17-year-old daughter of Sandra Mosley.
For Buggs, the notes and care packages from the students meant even more to him, helping him get through his hardest days in Iraq.
"They were just probably doing a school project but it meant so much to me," Buggs said. "When you’re sitting in your [bunker] by yourself and you’ve been deployed a few months and the loneliness is there, the letters from home, you get them and it changes your perspective of what you’re dealing with."
"Your mind forgets what’s going on around you and have tunnel vision going through these letters," he said.
Buggs, who has served in the military for nearly three decades, had tried for several years to travel to Stillmore to meet the students in person but said the timing never worked out.
This past weekend he was traveling to Georgia Southern for alumni weekend and decided to make a stop in Stillmore to surprise David Emanuel Academy's senior class, which includes six students from the original kindergarten class.
"I was so surprised that he came back to see us," said one of the students, Boslie Boots, 17. "I did not think I would have such an impact on a person but it was so special to hear about how we’ve helped him over the years."
"I never thought through the years that we’d affected his life as much as we did," added Jenna Mosley. "He said letters from us would turn his day around."
The meeting proved unexpectedly emotional for Buggs, who said he wanted to convey to the students the impact they had with their seemingly small acts of kindness.
"For me it was like everything from that time period when I was deployed came back in an emotional rush, the missions we were going through and them writing me," Buggs said. "I had a surreal moment of remembering the stressful times and how humble and happy I was to get a letter from them."
Buggs also spoke to the students about their future plans, encouraging them to say not "I hope" but "I will," according to both Boots and Mosley.
Buggs said he hopes that the students, and everyone else, take away a big picture message that they can make an impact in the world, whether it be kindness to deployed soldiers or first responders or teachers or just their next door neighbor.
"American kindness is I think one of the greatest things we have in our country and it’s not spoken enough of the small things that people do to make a difference in other people’s lives," he said. "Everybody can make an impact and do something positive."