Distant Pen Pal  Comes Knocking at Door

Distant Pen Pal Comes Knocking at Door

By Eric Miller

“Write to a soldier and cheer them up,” said Mrs. Larsen, while coordinating a holiday writing campaign for her fourth grade class. My daughter, Maggie, carefully focused on the task. Her vocabulary was simple, the paragraphs short. She talked about her hobbies, family, school, and pets. The letter was boxed with sixty others and mailed, destination unknown.

“You may not hear back,” I told her, “but we’re proud you tried.”

In 1971 my dad, an Air Force doctor, received orders to Vietnam.  My family wept. Writing him letters made me feel better.
Five months passed and an envelope arrived, with a US Army return address.  It was from a sergeant named Julian Alvarez. Alvarez could not reveal his location, but said he was alright. My family read his letter several times. We wrote personal messages on a Memorial Day card and mailed it.

Summer passed and we wondered if our pen pal was safe. The weeks blended together and before long, school started again. Then one day, I received an amazing phone call.

“May I speak with Mr. Miller?” the man asked.  His voice was polite, but serious.

“Who is this?” I challenged.
“This is Sgt. Julian Alvarez, you sent me a card. I’m back from overseas and my brother lives in Chico.  I have a gift for your daughter.”

Stunned, I hesitated. “Sure. Come for dinner.”  I hung up and wondered if I made a wise decision. “He was sincere,” I explained to my wife. “Let’s meet him.”

We tidied the house and I started the barbecue, figuring a soldier merited a thick steak. We were antsy—my family of four had a blind date.

The dogs barked when Sgt. Alvarez arrived. He wore his uniform, stood nearly six feet, and appeared to be in his mid-20s. We made clumsy small talk at first, but loosened up during the evening. A cordial fellow, his conversation was purposeful.  Alvarez received 30 letters and was happy to get ours from Chico. “I replied to everyone,” he said. “Your family and another from the East Coast were the only families to write back.  Chico is near my hometown and I wanted to personally thank you.”

An eight-year veteran, Alvarez joined the Army at age 17 and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our letter reached him in Afghanistan.  He led a team that provided convoy security for NATO forces. Each soldier carried 120 pounds of gear for a mission that typically lasted 20 hours. His longest mission, while under attack, was 70 hours. He directly confronted the enemy numerous times. Fortunately, he was never wounded in battle. “We lost several guys,” he sighed. We listened quietly as he continued. “I got hurt a few times.  Explosions from roadside bombs rocked our vehicle. We bounced around inside.”

He missed family and friends, but also trivial freedoms. “I couldn’t leave base to buy a candy bar. I took that simple liberty for granted. And I felt bad for my mom who was alone.”

Alvarez was awarded the NATO medal for excellent conduct, and the Afghan Campaign medal with two campaign stars. He returned home to the Bay Area in September, 2010.

After dinner, he presented a camouflage bandana. “Army chaplains hand them to soldiers who ask. Can I give it to Maggie?” I read the language printed on the bandana and recognized verses from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd… Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”  I smiled and nodded.

I’ve stayed in touch with Julian since our dinner two years ago.  He now attends the University of Alabama and studies communications. He still serves in the Army Reserves.

I have never served my country in the way Julian has. I appreciate his sacrifice and taking time to contact us. He even made time to visit Mrs. Larsen’s class. I asked what I could do for him. “Military moms struggle with worry. Can you promote Blue Star Moms?  Blue Star Moms helped my mom.”

Friendships can begin in unexpected ways.  Like this one, because of a fourth-grader’s letter to a soldier.

Thank you, Julian.  Happy Veterans Day.

To contact Blue Star Moms, visit www.bluestarmoms.org.

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