This fourth-grader's faith kept him going
Posted in , Apr 1, 2007
"Mom!" my 10-year-old daughter, Annie, shouted as she burst through the front door after school that fall afternoon nearly three years ago. "I just got a letter from a soldier!"
Annie's teacher had given them a project: Write a letter to a U.S. serviceman or woman in Iraq. Annie had worked hard on a big picture of a red, white and blue cat. On the bottom of the page she'd written, "Be safe, and thank you."
I'd cautioned Annie not to get her hopes up too much.
"There are a lot of soldiers over there," I told her. "And they're very busy. I'm sure they'll appreciate hearing from you, but you might not get an answer from them."
"That's okay, Mom," Annie had said. "It was fun making the picture."
Now Annie pulled the letter from her schoolbag and read it to me.
Hi, my name is Scott Montgomery. I am a sergeant in the South Carolina Army National Guard currently stationed in Kuwait. Two weeks ago in Iraq, on a mission just north of Baghdad, my truck was hit by a bomb. A piece of shrapnel struck me in the arm and I had to be rushed to the hospital. I had two operations and was feeling pretty sad. While I was recuperating, someone gave me an envelope addressed to a U.S. soldier. I found a beautiful handmade card from you. It brought a big smile to my face to know that a young girl in Indiana took the time to wish good luck to someone she doesn't even know. Thank you, Annie. You really brightened this soldier's day. I hope you get a chance to write back. Take care, Scott.
"That is so cool!" Annie said. She raced upstairs to show the letter to her sisters, while the words she'd just read echoed in my head. Kuwait. Baghdad. Trucks. Bombs. Shrapnel. The kinds of words I read everyday in the paper, along with another one: Casualties. I instantly liked the young man who had been thoughtful enough to write back to Annie—to make her feel so special. But to be honest, I was worried. My daughter was a sweet little fourth-grader. Her world was small and, I hoped, protected. Scott was a man in the middle of a war where people were getting maimed and killed. A conflict that adults argued about every day…on TV, the radio, even in our own church parking lot. The ugly realities of war were nearly everywhere. Did I really need to expose my 10-year-old to them? Wouldn't the world find her soon enough?
"She's going to grow up fast enough as it is," I said to my husband, Jim, that night. "War is the most horrible thing in the world. Does she have to learn about it now, when she doesn't even know that Santa's not real?"
"Look," said Jim. "We're the ones who taught the girls that we need to support the troops over there. Annie's just putting that idea into action. She can learn from this. It is scary, true. But you're never too young to do the right thing."
The next day after school, Annie showed me a letter she'd written to Scott. It was short, but I could see the work she'd put into it in every carefully lettered word.
Dear Scott, I'm in fourth grade. I'm in gymnastics 12 hours a week. I like SpongeBob and using my dad's computer to play office. Annie. "That's nice," I told her, and she sent the letter off.
Starting almost immediately, the first thing Annie did when she got home from school or gymnastics class was to check the mailbox. Three weeks passed. I figured Scott wasn't going to write back.
"Don't feel bad," I told Annie one afternoon following another fruitless check of the mailbox. "Scott's a soldier. He's got all kinds of things to think about over there. Writing you a letter right now might not be so easy for him.
"I know, Mom," Annie said, her voice upbeat as usual. "But I can still think he's going to write back. I can hope."
A month flew by and I hoped Annie had moved on. Then one day a package with a military return address showed up. Inside was a bracelet made of rope, a small stuffed camel and another handwritten note from Scott. "Every guy in my unit wears a bracelet like the one enclosed," it read. Annie immediately wrapped it around her tiny wrist; it was a perfect fit. She went to bed that night with it on, and the camel tucked in beside her. I peeked in on her later. Her face, bathed in the soft pink glow of her half-moon nightlight, was peaceful almost beyond imagining, so opposite of the way our world was now. How would she react if Scott or someone in his unit got hurt or worse? I went to bed more worried than ever.
"Christmas is only a month away," Annie said the next morning at breakfast. "Let's send Scott a holiday goodie package. We can put cookies in it. The frosted cut-out kind. And Chex Mix. You can't have Christmas without Chex Mix."
Christmas in Iraq. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it. Broiling heat. Constant danger. And homesickness.
I opened my eyes and saw Annie staring at me, a big, eager grin on her face. I looked at that innocent, completely trusting face, and decided I had to say something more than I had so far. "War isn't nice, Honey. This isn't just another fun school."
Annie fixed me with one of those looks she gives me from time to time. A look that basically says: Mom, how can you be so dumb? "I know, Mom," she said. "And that's why I wanted to write the letter! That's why I put Scott and the soldiers in my prayers every night."
Now I was the one being naive. I should have known Annie had thought this through, and that there was no hiding the world from her. And certainly there was no holding back her prayers. And how could she pray if she didn't know what she was praying for?
"Christmas in Kuwait!" I said to Annie. "We should put some practical things in the package too. Things he can use everyday, like gum and lip balm. He can't drive down to Target like we can."
Annie nodded vigorously, as if this fact had already occurred to her.
By the time we'd gotten everything packed into Scott's holiday package and sent it off, I was as excited for Scott to get it as Annie was. That night I added Annie's soldier to my own prayers. Lord, I guess Scott's a part of our family now. Please keep him safe.
The holidays came and went. No word from Scott. I kept my eye on the mailbox. I was as bad as Annie. Worse, probably. Finally a box arrived—a big box.
Inside was an American flag. With a mix of awe and excitement, Annie and I spread it across the dining room table. It was covered with written messages from everyone in Scott's unit, like a page from a high school yearbook.
Dear Annie, Scott's letter read, We flew this American flag in Iraq and Kuwait. As you can see, all the soldiers on my team have signed it for you. They know all about you, and it is our way of saying thank you for your support. You aren't really supposed to write on the flag, but we made an exception. I hope you like it. Take care. God bless. Scott. I turned my head away. Wars make us cry for the right reasons too.
That spring, Annie developed an injury to her back due to gymnastics class. Her flexibility caused her to develop a hairline crack on one of her vertebra. This meant limited activities for her, and she needed to wear a back brace for several months. She told Scott all about it in a letter. Dear Scott, I had to quit gymnastics. I hurt my back. I have a brace that I wear, and I have to do therapy. Ugh!
Scott wrote back—in an envelope covered with some of the SpongeBob stickers Annie had sent him. Dear Annie, How are you doing? Is your back still bothering you? I hope by now it is all better. Take it easy and be patient. I know you're upset about not being able to do gymnastics right now. Try not to get too upset. Remember, God has a plan in mind for you. When I got wounded back in October, I was pretty upset about it. I wondered why that happened to me. I now know that it happened so I could get your letter and we could become friends. Your friend, Scott.
"See, Mom?" Annie whispered after we read the letter. "It's all part of God's plan." I couldn't say anything. I pulled her close to me, kissed the top of her head and breathed in her little girl smell. Sometimes moms forget that there are even bigger plans than their own, and how fast children grow up.
In the fall of 2005, Annie's friend Sergeant Scott Montgomery came home to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to resume duty as a police patrolman—the job he had held before shipping out to Iraq. He invited our family down in February 2006 to meet him face to face. We decided to meet Scott and his fiancée down at the beach.
Annie hesitated at first, feeling a little shy, then threw her arms around Scott like she'd known him her whole life. So did I. It was so good to see him and see that all his wounds were healed. We had dinner with Scott and his fiancée. Scott had arranged for us to attend a tribute to our Armed Forces at the Alabama Theatre the next day. He greeted us at the auditorium and showed us to our seats.
"Just to let you know," he whispered in my ear, "I have a little surprise to give to Annie, so I'll be asking her to step up to the stage with me when the time comes."
When the announcer called Scott up, he walked nervously to the stage. After the applause, Scott called to Annie, "Annie, get up here. I'm not doing this by myself."
"This young lady was always there for me when I was in Iraq," he told the audience. "She deserves to share this award." The room broke into applause as Scott handed a plaque and a bronze eagle to Annie. Someone snapped a picture. "Annie, while we're up here," Scott continued, "there's one more thing I'd like to give you." Scott reached into his pocket and pulled something out: his Purple Heart, the award wounded soldiers are given by their country. Annie's eyes widened as Scott pinned his Purple Heart on her jacket. The whole house erupted in applause. Scott's fiancée gave me a hug.
Annie made her way back to her seat, the plaque and eagle in her hands, the medal pinned proudly to her, and an impossibly huge grin on her face. "Mom, can you believe how cool this is?" she said.
"It's pretty cool all right," I said, putting my arms around my daughter. "And so are you."