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Soldier, on Leave From Iraq, Meet Pen Pals

May 12, 2006

SMITHTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ Third-graders at the St. Patrick School know nothing of roadside bombs or the insurgents in Iraq. They only know their pen pal, Sgt. Travis Collier, is serving there.

Collier _ home from Iraq on a two-week leave _ interrupted the students’ math lesson Thursday with a surprise visit after flying all night from his home in Murrieta, Calif., to thank the children for their letters and gifts.

``We are the luckiest kids in America right now!″ shrieked Katie Curry.

Gina Giamundo gushed: ``I was, like, so excited! I was so happy that he came, I was about to cry. It’s just a great dream come true.″

Shortly after 10 a.m., teacher Elise Perri asked her 26 pupils to pay attention for a special announcement.

``I’m going to introduce to you Sgt. Travis Collier,″ she said to wide eyes and gasps. ``He came all the way from Iraq to see you.″

Collier walked in, sharply dressed in his Army uniform, ready for any drill sergeant’s inspection.

``You guys get all my letters?″ he asked. ``Yes,″ they answered.

``All my soldiers in Iraq loved all the candy, all the socks, all the stuff you guys gave. It was real nice,″ he continued.

Then he presented the class with a red-white-and-blue banner, headlined ``Operation Iraqi Freedom 2005-2006. St. Patrick School.″ Below it were the names of all 26 children in the class.

After meeting the third-graders, it was off to the auditorium, where Collier was cheered by the entire student body at a rally that featured the marching band and cheerleaders.

The relationship started last December. Holly Hayban wanted to correspond with a soldier in Iraq. Her mom, Bonnie, suggested the son of her business associate, Ryndi Collier.

Holly wrote to Sgt. Collier, then showed her friends his response. In the weeks and months that followed, the class sent letters and treats.

``My eyes were filled with tears and I was, like, so happy,″ Holly said after meeting the soldier. ``I said ‘hi’ and I gave him a hug and stuff. It’s pretty awesome.″

Collier, 22, who is assigned to a bridge-building engineers unit, said he flew from Kuwait to Germany, then to Atlanta and St. Louis. Then he drove home to California, and got on a plane to New York _ at his own expense _ for the one-day visit. He goes back to Iraq on May 18.

He shrugged when asked why he wrote to each child.

``If they took time to write me, I can find at least part of my day,″ he said. ``I mean I wouldn’t have time some days, I’d be out on a mission. ... But anytime I had five minutes to myself, I’d just pull out a pen and paper and try to write a letter, put them all together and send them out.″

In their letters, the children asked him about his favorite color (red) and whether he had any pets (a dog named Rufus.) They had no questions about war tactics or casualties.

``It’s kind of a relief,″ he said. ``It’s basic one-on-one conversation without political views, without you know, ‘This is the way I feel about the war,’ none of that. It’s simple fun.″

Holly’s mother, who helped plan the surprise, called the sergeant a hero.

``For him to individually write and continue a relationship with children when he is out on missions, and everyday his life is in jeopardy, that to me shows more than character.″


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