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Letters from soldiers; Fifth graders get a glimpse of Army life

Submitted photo Fifth graders at Prairie Wind Middle School have adopted a platoon of American soldiers as pen pals.1 / 2
Submitted photo Dan Christenson's nephew Derek Wang (left, front) and his platoon are stationed in Fort Jackson, S.C. for basic training, and are currently pen pals with fifth graders in Perham.2 / 2

Dan Christenson's fifth grade students at Prairie Wind Middle School were buzzing with excitement last week when they received 21 letters from their Army pen pals - soldiers in the Bravo Company, first Battalion, 13th Infantry, currently in basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C.

"It's really cool to write to someone in the Army," fifth grader Emma Bowers said. "I never thought I would be able to do that before, and have them write back."

Christenson stated in an email that his class wrote letters to celebrate Patriot's Day in September: "We initially wrote just to my nephew (Derek Wang of Fargo, N.D.), but since the others in his platoon took such an interest in helping answer the questions, we decided to write to 'American Soldiers' and have Derek pass them out to platoon-mates."

Using information from the soldier's letters, students shared what they have learned about Army life in an interview last week.

According to most of the letters, basic training requires soldiers to really push themselves. For example, they run many miles a day and they have competitions to see who can shoot more accurately.

"You have to have a lot of energy to be in the Army," Bowers said.

Some soldiers talked of scarier experiences they've had, such as jumping off a 40-foot cliff into a river.

These experiences have left some fifth graders hoping for more information. Hailye Wright, for example, asked her pen pal, Mitch Lindsey of Georgia, to share more details of his 40-foot drop in his next letter.

Isaiah Black summed up what he learned from his pal Joshua Zeiss of Iowa: "There's a force that is helping our nation fight terrorists. These groups of soldiers go around our nation to learn about how to defend and attack. Its kind of fun to talk to them."

Though most of the letters touched on a few basic shared experiences, each letter contains little bits of information revealing the individuality of each soldier.

For example, student Makayla Gruette's pen pal, Cody Bevlins of Oklahoma, is a crew member of the 13 Bravo Cannon, which maintains weapons. Jazzmin Branchaud's pen pal, Jordan Adams of Texas, has a brother in the same platoon, but he told her that after basic training, "they will probably be separated."

Some students didn't want to share specifics about their letters.

"It's kind of private what we say to each other because we don't say it out loud," Isabel VanWatermulen said, who writes to Christenson's nephew, Derek Wang.

For the most part, the fifth graders were impressed with what they learned.

"He's been camping in the woods and jumping off of buildings," Branchaud said of her pen pal. "I kind of would like to be in the Army if you get to do stuff that he said."

As the kids send their replies back this week, they look forward to future return letters, hoping the relatively fast two-week turnaround time for replies will continue throughout the year.

Lucas Fisher said he's waiting for advice: "My little brother wants to be an Army man, so I asked if he had any tips I could give to him."

Some fifth graders were surprised at things soldiers had to do in basic training, like experience the effects of a gas chamber. Bowers said her pen pal, Malik Coleman of Maryland, stated the gas chambers left many on the platoon, "crying, coughing and they couldn't open their eyes."