POWAY, Calif. -- Students at Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway, Calif., clamored and crowded together around an unusual sight April 26. Marines in desert digital cammies from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit dropped by to talk with a group of two classes and have a barbecue in the school courtyard.
But it wasn’t as if they had never met. In fact, 17 Marines and 39 of the students had been in contact since October of 2004, while the MEU was deployed to the Iraqi provinces of Najaf, Karbala and Qadisiyah in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
They were pen pals – a collaboration between childhood friends Tina Shaw, middle school teacher at Meadowbrook Middle School, and Lt. Col. Gary S. Johnston, operations officer for the 11th MEU. Shaw suggested the idea to Johnston through email while the MEU was deployed, and he consequently offered up the chance to MEU Marines who he thought would enjoy it and have the time to correspond.
“Some Marines took the opportunity,” Johnston said. “It was first come, first serve. I was even getting several volunteers after I had handed out all the pen pals.”
Shaw, who teaches an intermediate class for students learning English as a second language, brought the correspondence to light as she was looking to get the students to open their eyes to the world.
“Most of the kids don’t watch the news,” Shaw said. “So, not only was it a good way to help them learn to write, it got them involved in current affairs on the global scale.”
She also stated how communicating with the Marines and getting pictures of them out in Iraq helped the students see a different side of the war.
During a class on the MEU’s past deployment given to Shaw’s students and more, Johnston not only described the MEU’s victory over radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Militia but also the millions of dollars spent in refurbishing and reconstructing the MEU’s Iraqi provinces. When he asked the students, whose eyes were glued to the slideshow brief, who’d seen the fighting on the news, half the kids raised their hands. But when he asked who’d seen all the “good stuff going on out there,” only one student raised his hand.
Besides providing the students with a grasp of what the war was really like, unlikely friendships were formed between the desert-hardened Marines and the middle school kids.
Shervin Bahmani Pour, 13, moved to the United States from Germany a year and half ago. Shaw described how he was having trouble making new friends after leaving all his old ones behind in Germany, but now he considers Lance Cpl. Ryan J. Heist, a MEU operations clerk, to be his best friend.
“It was something to look forward to at school,” Bahmani Pour said about his correspondence with Heist.
The two would chat over email about their daily activities at least once a week.
“He even told me about his girlfriend,” Bahmani Pour snickered.
“Well, she’s actually my ex-girlfriend now,” Heist said and they laughed together.
Staff Sgt. Edy C. Alcantara, MEU assistant operations chief, sat outside by the barbeque teaching his pen pals and more students how to heat up a Meal Ready-to-Eat. The amazement of the students was matched by the Marines around. Some of the students liked the MREs so much they ate more of them than the barbeque. The MREs were such a hit for the students that Staff Sgt. Michael E. Kolek, MEU force protection chief, had to hold push up and sit up competitions to see who out of all the students was going to get one.
Alcantara and Kolek stood with the surrounding kids, who were laughing and raising their hands in the air to enter the competitions or answer a question about Johnston’s class.
“I think the Marines liked the idea that they were able to be mentors to these kids,” Johnston said about what the Marines got out of the experience. “They did a lot to encourage the kids to finish school and go to college.”
Johnston is certain that the most of the students’ topic of discussion “with Mom and Dad around the dinner table that night was the Marines.”
Shaw was appreciative of the work the Marines did to keep in contact with the students and for what they had to say. The next morning at class she spent an hour answering more questions about the military.
“I think we have succeeded in helping them find a purpose to high school,” she said. “They are starting to see the importance of a diploma. Some are even looking ahead towards college and ROTC. I thank all of the Marines from the bottom of my heart.”
The school is even discussing doing it again, but on a larger scale to reach more of the students. The students that got to experience the day with the Marines of the MEU “are special at school this week,” Shaw said.
Johnston also was proud of the Marines that took the time to befriend a pen pal or more.
“The Marines were great. Everyone who volunteered stuck through it all the way,” he said. “A lot of other units probably did the same thing somewhere, but we did this one full circle by coming to visit our pen pals.”