By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer
UNION TOWNSHIP - Shortly after her 20-year-old son was sent to Iraq in February, Carolyn Maupin got in touch with Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin's fourth-grade teacher at Willowville Elementary School.
Would you mind, she asked Pam Branham, having your fourth-graders write letters to Matt?
Branham, who taught Matt Maupin a decade ago, was more than willing. Shortly before their spring break, every fourth-grader in the class wrote to Matt, asked how he was doing, told him about the NCAA basketball tournament, thanked him for serving for his country.
Fourth grade teacher Pam Branham and her class at Willowville Elementary School in Union Township has written letters to Matt Maupin and two other soldiers. Branham taught Maupin when he was a fourth grader at Willowville 10 years ago.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Maupin never got the letters.
On the first day back, three days after Maupin was reported missing after an attack on his convoy near Baghdad on April 9, several students were waiting to meet Branham as she came into the classroom.
"Did you hear about our soldier?" they asked her.
Since then, these fourth-graders have learned how an international conflict half a world away can come right into their classroom. The war that seemed so abstract has been given a face - the smiling face of a former Glen Este High School football player who's become a symbol for all American troops at war.
"I was worried about the impact his capture would have on these kids," said Branham. "They invested their hearts in this, and that's always a risk. But this has given them an opportunity to think about and talk about some serious things.
"They want to know what's happening to Matt, and they want to know if he's coming back," Branham continued. "And all I can tell them is, 'I don't know.'"
This fourth-grade class of about 20 kids, who had also written letters to another former Willowville student serving in Iraq and to an entire Army platoon, has become the school's epicenter of patriotism and support for American troops.
Their classroom became a warehouse for toothbrushes and shampoo bottles, Pop-Tarts and playing cards, sunglasses and sunscreen. The school filled a minivan with toiletries and nonperishable food items, which will be sent to American troops through the armed forces support group, 4 The Troops.
"Kids can make a connection to this," said Mia Supe, co-president of 4 The Troops. "Writing letters to troops opens (kids') eyes. It connects them to the real soldiers and lets them know that war is terrible, but it's sometimes necessary."
Like any group of Americans, these fourth-graders have disparate feelings about the war.
"The reason we went to war is because we want to fight for freedom and to protect our country," said Josh Neff, 11.
"We also went to war because President Bush thought they had mass weapons of destruction (sic)," added 10-year-old Adam Porter.
No matter what, said Elizabeth Hollinden, 9, "the troops need to know that someone cares for them and appreciates what they're doing for our country."
Two local soldiers have written back to the class.
Sgt. Bobby Elliott sent Branham a letter and four bills of Iraqi money. Former Willowville student Chris Flinn wrote Branham that he learned patriotism during the school's annual Memorial Day parades.
Many of the students said they pray for Maupin's safe return and want to thank him in person for fighting for freedom.
Branham is praying, too.
"When you're teaching a kid in your class, they're your kid forever," said Branham, who is in her 31st year teaching at Willowville Elementary School. "Once they're in your heart, they always stay in your heart."
Branham has discussed Maupin's captivity delicately with her students, but she says they always want to talk about him.
"Kids are resilient," said Branham, whose 23-year-old son serves in the Army National Guard. "They took it OK when they learned about Matt."
She wiped away a tear.
"Probably better than their teacher took it."
4 the Troops, a local group sending care packages to troops overseas, will be putting together packages and writing letters to troops Friday starting at 6:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Glen Este, 1034 Old Ohio 74 in Union Township. The group needs nonperishable food items and toiletries, as well as money to pay for shipping. For more information, call the church at (513) 752-0936 or visit www.4thetroops.net
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