Soon after Army Reserve Sgt. Regina Reali was deployed to Iraq last summer, she began corresponding with two sixth-grade classes at Alexander Hamilton K-8 School in Fresno, where she lived.
A relative, who worked at the school as an aide, had suggested that the students might "adopt" the soldier, then 24, who worked as a civil affairs specialist assigned to the 351st Civil Affairs Command in Mountain View, Calif.
"She was lonely and scared over there," said Sherry Tharpe, who teaches one of the sixth-grade classes.
The letters and care packages that the students sent, Tharpe said, were meant "to cheer her up": an "ABC" book made just for her (A for awesome, B for brave); and things they knew Reali couldn't find in Iraq, such as crayons and toothpaste.
Reali sent back Iraqi candy and money.
The students had been looking forward to meeting their hero in person in April, when she was scheduled to return to Fresno at the end of her commitment to the Army Reserve, Tharpe said.
But Reali died Dec. 23 of injuries suffered when her Humvee was struck by an improvised explosive device near Baghdad, less than a week after her 25th birthday. The explosion also killed Army Reserve Spc. Cheyenne Willey, 36, of Fremont, Calif.
Reali, who was born in Denair in Stanislaus County, grew up in Fresno.
Reali's father told the Merced Sun-Star that his daughter joined the Army Reserve in July 2000 in part to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Paul, who was in the Navy. "She was a good, bright young woman," he said. "She was good enough to serve and do her duty."
Before the Hamilton students left for winter break, they sent a Christmas package to Reali, complete with granola bars, nuts and books. They had plans to send her another care package after the first of the year.
They returned to school on a day that turned out to be Reali's funeral. Tharpe said she broke the news to students gently; they asked to write a poem of their friendship with the soldier.
Tharpe read the poem, which the students titled "Regina," at the funeral later that day:
We sent her books and treats to
lift her soul,
She leaves us cherished
memories and a dark hole.
Some of us wept, some of us
Some of us just felt funny inside.
You left us without ever saying
We have great sorrow and pain,
You are our hero and you did
not die in vain.
Tharpe said Reali's death taught her students that one person can make a difference in their lives.
Through her communication with them, she illuminated their lessons about history and politics, Tharpe said.
They learned, she said, "that freedom isn't free, and that war isn't all fun and games."
Reali is survived by her father, Richard, of Atwater, Calif.; and her brother, Paul, of San Diego.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times