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Soldier visits preschool pen pals at UD

Jim Luoma, an Army reservist who just finished a 13-month tour of active duty, meets the students at UD’s Laboratory Preschool with whom he corresponded via e-mail during his time in Iraq.
5:21 p.m., April 14, 2004--The 4- and 5-year-olds arrived at the University’s Laboratory Preschool on Wednesday afternoon to find an exciting message from teacher Laura Morris posted on a large sheet of lined paper in their classroom.

“We have a special visitor coming today,” its neatly printed letters said. “Can you guess who it might be?”

As Morris read the message aloud, a chorus of voices chimed in. “Jim!” the children shouted, pointing at a young man sitting next to Morris and wearing an Army shirt. “It’s Jim!”

“That’s right,” Morris said. “It’s our pen pal, Jim. He’s home from Iraq, and he’s come to visit us.”

Jim Luoma, an Army reservist who just finished a 13-month tour of active duty, much of it in Iraq and Kuwait, had corresponded with the class via e-mail, with Morris transcribing and forwarding the children’s comments and questions. Those messages, along with occasional crayon drawings, were a bright spot for the 23-year-old Luoma and others in his unit with whom he shared them, he said. In the process, he and his buddies helped the children grapple with some big issues.

“I was a little apprehensive about trying to explain a war to 4-year-olds, but I’m glad that we’ve been able to do this,” he told Morris.

The pen pal project came about when Luoma’s mother, Karen Rucker, director of the University’s new Early Learning Center, passed along some information about her son and photos of him at boot camp and in the Middle East. A computer specialist in his civilian life, Luoma said he became interested in the idea of interacting with the preschoolers and agreed to give it a try. Morris said she, too, gave the pen pal project serious thought before sending the first e-mail and did some research on talking to children about serious issues.

“The teachers at the preschool all discussed the idea, and we decided it was a good way to put a human face on the war for the children,” Morris said. “As the situation continues in Iraq, more and more families will be touched by it and more children will have questions. And, it really was a great experience for the children and all of us.”

One day last month, the children sat in a circle in their classroom while Morris read Luoma’s most recent message, answering questions they had previously asked him.

Teacher Laura Morris (left) helps preschool student Jaker (center) try on Luoma’s army field jacket.
“It takes a long time after a war to make sure everyone is safe,” Luoma wrote, in explaining why troops remained in Iraq. “War can be a scary thing, but sometimes you need to do it in order to keep everyone safe.”

In response to questions about why soldiers carry guns, he wrote, “Nikolas, we don’t want to shoot anyone. Sometimes, just like policemen or policewomen, we have to so they don’t hurt other people. Michelle, sometimes bad people don’t want to talk about their problems with us and start shooting. It’s hard to understand, even for grown-ups, but sometimes to be the good guys, we have to shoot, too.”

When Noah asked if he liked being a soldier, Luoma replied, “I like being a soldier because I get to serve my country. A lot of people around the world don’t have the same freedom that we do in the U.S. Being a soldier has let me travel to the other side of the world and see things that most people will never see or understand. Plus, it’s fun to drive big trucks and live outdoors! Kind of like camp but it’s much hotter here.”

The children asked more mundane questions, as well: Do you drive big trucks? (“Some have tires that are taller than your teacher.”); Do you wear seat belts? (“Buckling up is always at the top of our safety checklist.”); How far away is Iraq? (20 hours on an airplane.); What does Iraq look like? (Lots of sand.); Do you like the Army food? (“Not much, but it’s healthy.”); Are there a lot of other soldiers with you? (“There are more than 18 soldiers sleeping next to me right now.”)

Meeting Luoma in person for the first time Wednesday, the children asked him again about the vehicles he drove in Iraq and whether there are girls in the Army as well as boys (“There are lots of girls in the Army.”). They tried on his camouflage jacket, comparing its color to the sand in their sandbox, and heard about the Iraqi dog that attached itself to his unit for five months. But, they were just as interested in showing him around the preschool, demonstrating their climbing equipment and startling him with an introduction to Monty the Python, who’s on loan to the class.

When Luoma left, he asked if he could come visit again sometime and got an enthusiastic response.

“This project has really gone places we never expected,” Morris said. “It’s spurred the children’s interest in all kinds of things, like learning about maps to see where Iraq is and learning how you can make a connection with someone through writing. And, it’s done just what we hoped—to put a human face on these big issues of war and peace.”

Article by Ann Manser
Photos by Kathy Atkinson

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