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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Students, Army pen pals finally match faces, names

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

Helemano Military Reservation — They tossed dummy grenades, successfully completed physical training exercises and even strapped on gas masks and body armor.

Sgt. Erik Miranda of the 125th Signal Battalion watches his pen pal, Joshua Kanter, go through a bag of gifts Miranda gave him. Kanter was Miranda's pen pal during his deployment to Afghanistan.

Photos By Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But mainly, the 300 Helemano Elementary School students who came to this military reserve yesterday wanted to greet their 400 pen pals in the Army 125th Signal Battalion who recently returned from the Middle East.

"It was exciting meeting face to face," said fifth-grader John Bradley, 11, after placing a paper lei around the neck of Sgt. Brian Hammond, 23, who was Bradley's pen pal while Hammond was stationed in Afghanistan. "I was nervous at first."

"It was pretty cool meeting John because we'd written back and forth," Hammond said. "It was reassuring knowing someone out there cared."

Each student wore two name tags — one bearing his or her name, and another with the name of the pen pal. The soldiers did likewise. Because there were more soldiers than kids, a few students got two pen pals.

"The 125th Signal Battalion is our school's military partner," said school principal Dennis Kato. "After they deployed, we thought now is our chance to give back for all they had done for us."

So during the past year, students sent letters each week to each battalion soldier stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to Command Sgt. Maj. Hattie Williams, the letters were especially important to single soldiers, such as herself, who might otherwise not have received mail from youngsters.

"The kids were nice enough to write to us when we were deployed, and this is just something to show them our appreciation and to show them what the military does," Williams said.

Williams succeeded in finding her pen pal, Alexis Glass.

"I talked to her," said Williams, who has kept one of the third-grader's handwritten letters in her office. "She's kind of shy, but I think when I talk to her again she'll be more at ease because they're out there having fun."

Sgt. First Class Elmer Perez answers in cadence as he carries Helemano Elementary student Jalen Bailey during an event at Helemano Military Reservation for students and their pen pals.
Part of the fun was kids and soldiers trying to find their respective pen pals. Most, but not all, succeeded.

"The idea is to match these children up with their pen pals and put a face to the people they've been supporting all year," said Susan Swofford, school military liaison and event coordinator, whose husband, Chief Warrant Officer Trey Swofford, 1-25 Aviation Regiment, returned from Iraq in January.

"At the end of the day, the students who have not met their pen pals will go greet a soldier with a lei, so that all the soldiers will get a lei whether they've met their pen pal or not."

Kamalu Rosales, who was celebrating his 11th birthday, said the perfect present would be to find his pen pal, Spc. Jeffrey Carpenter. When it finally happened, time had nearly run out.

"Happy birthday," Carpenter said, shaking Rosales' hand and posing for photographs with Rosales grinning broadly at his side.

For a few moments, the two chatted about the weather in Afghanistan and what Carpenter did while he was over there. Then, the conversation moved to the home front.

"You go surfing a lot?" Rosales asked.

"I body surf," Carpenter said.

"That's what I do, too," Rosales said. "I go to Bellows."

"Bellows?" Carpenter said. "Yep, I've gone there a few times. You never know. Maybe we'll run into each other some time."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.