Like the other Marine reservists in his platoon, Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Bera was exhausted last May as he moved north through the Iraqi desert. Temperatures pushed above 110 degrees each day, desert sand blew relentlessly, he was in the middle of a war and he missed his life back home.
Then the letters arrived.
Bera received an envelope addressed to him from Andrew Andrade, a Garden Grove fifth-grader. The boy told the Marine of his dream of playing basketball and then peppered him with questions: What's your favorite sport? What does Iraq look like? Do you play video games?
The simple, honest questions, Bera said, were a powerful palliative in less-than-simple surroundings.
And, like dozens of other Marines, Bera responded with a four-page letter that Andrade devoured when it arrived at school.
On Friday, Bera and Andrade had the chance to thank each other when a group of Marines visited Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School for a day of assemblies, pizza lunches and impromptu basketball games. After months of letter exchanges, the meeting was the culmination of an unusually personal relationship that benefited Marine and student alike.
Before her long-time friend, Lt. Col. Michael Vacca, left for the Middle East, first-grade teacher Jennifer Zarkades suggested the letter writing idea to him. Vacca knew that, at best, the approaching months would be uncomfortable for the 88 part-time Marines under his command who had left jobs and family behind. The letters, he thought, could only help keep spirits up.
The project was equally important to the 32 Eisenhower instructors who jumped at the opportunity to teach their students a multitude of basic skills as well as unusual lessons. Along with reading and writing the letters, teachers structured math lessons around the distances the Marines were traveling. Geography lessons came alive and social studies discussions focused on Iraqi culture.
And while the Marines took pains to shield the students from the violence that surrounded them, the exchange nonetheless pushed the students to make a connection to the war and ask difficult questions about its realities.
Edward Rebollar, 11, said he was excited to be able to support the troops and that the letters led to some difficult questions. "How can we kill them and at the same time they're trying to kill us?" he asked of Iraqi soldiers. "Why should we go to war?"
Andrade and other students added that they thought about Iraqi students and said it wasn't fair they were in such danger. They wondered why Saddam Hussein -- "the bad man" to some younger kids -- wanted to hurt his own people. And they expressed gratitude that Americans were willing to leave their families in order to fight.
Child psychologist Robert R. Butterworth of Los Angeles, an expert on how children cope with trauma, said the letter writing offered an unusual opportunity to children who otherwise might know little about the war beyond the television images.
"Once the abstract [concept] of war becomes someone you're writing to, it becomes personal ... This is the reality of what's going on and kids need to have a connection to what they're growing up in," he said. "That's what education is about."
Butterworth, who was not connected with the project, and the teachers all agreed, however, that it would have been devastating to the children if any of the Marines had been killed. In fact, when some were injured in an ambush, first-grade teacher Zarkades decided not to inform the students.
Eisenhower principal Pamela Bunker said no teachers or parents expressed concern about such risks or questioned whether the project was appropriate. "This was never a political statement. It was never a war statement. These men and women needed to know we cared about them."
It was obvious Friday that Marines had gotten the message. Students sat mesmerized as they listened to stories about the desert heat, sleeping in the dirt and eating Iraqi chickens.
And when Andrade and Bera finally met, it was impossible to tell who was more excited. Bera smiled widely, offered a solid handshake to an awestruck Andrade and thanked him repeatedly for his letters. The two exchanged e-mail addresses and said they would stay in touch.
"It was probably the most positive thing that happened to us while we were over there," Bera said of the letters sent by the students. "It was really a shining light in a terrible situation."