Students show troops overseas they have big hearts

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 Messenger photo by John Matuszak

Students at Olde Orchard Elementary School, flanked by Liberty Tax Service employees Debra Johnson, as Lady Liberty, and Steve Young, as Uncle Sam, display the Valentine’s Day cards they created that will be sent to troops overseas. The local effort is coordinated by Linda Aurnou, director of the Brice Road office, who joins the company’s 2,300 outlets nationwide to let the troops know they are remembered.

Olde Orchard Elementary School librarian Ellen Lang wants her students to know that when they are celebrating holidays such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day, there are people far away who are missing such festive occasions.

While many of us were enjoying Christmas Eve feasts, her son, Kevin Lang, a 2004 Reynoldsburg High School graduate now stationed with the Army in Afghanistan, ate a can of tuna.

"I want them to know while we’re celebrating, the troops can feel left out," Lang explained.

That’s why she and her students have participated for the second year in a row in the Valentines for Troops efforts, coordinated locally by Carol Aurnou and her Liberty Tax Office.

Aurnou expected to collect more than 500 hand-made cards from students at Olde Orchard, in the Columbus school district, and Graham Road, Rose Hill, and Slate Ridge elementary schools and Hannah Ashton Middle School, in the Reynoldsburg district.

The Valentines for Troops effort was started five years ago by Shauna Fleming, now a college student. In that time, millions of letters, cards and emails have been sent to men and women stationed overseas. The campaign is supported by the Department of Defense’s "America Supports You" program.

Fleming doesn’t have as much time to maintain the program, Aurnou said, but others are trying to keep it going.

Last year, Aurnou sent the cards she collected to a central location in California, where they were distributed to members  of  the armed forces stationed in the Middle East.

That outlet was not available this year, so she chose to select two individuals, including Lang’s son and National Guard Sgt. Richard Scott, husband of Melissa Scott, of Pataskala, to receive and deliver the heartfelt messages among their comrades.

Aurnou knows what its like to have a loved on far away, and what it means for that person to be sent a message that they are not forgotten. Her son was in the Marines for nine years, seven of those stationed overseas.

The Scotts came to Liberty Tax Service because they help prepare tax returns for free for members of the military who are being deployed overseas.

Sgt. Scott, an 18-year veteran of the National Guard stationed at Defense Supply Center Columbus, is with his unit at Fort Hood, Texas, awaiting a year-long deployment to Kuwait.

One of his jobs is distributing mail, so he sees how important it is for the troops to get correspondence from home, his wife said. "They really look forward to getting a letter. And they’re really disappointed when they don’t."

Their daughter’s second-grade class also wrote letters for the Guard members.

Lang’s son has been in Afghanistan for 13 months, and is scheduled to return stateside in April. He had been accepted at Ohio University and planned to join their ROTC program when he changed plans.

"He always felt a need to service his country, even though he knew he was enlisting in a wartime situation," Lang said with a mixture of pride and apprehension of a mother with a child in a war zone.

He experienced immediate culture shock upon arriving in Afghanistan. People in the region still lived in mud huts and shared space with their goats.

When tons of relief supplies were air-dropped, "people came out of nowhere," Sgt. Lang told his mother, and carried off the necessities in two and a half minutes.

Living conditions for the troops could be equally primitive. He was assigned to a former Russian air base that had no running water for four months.

Located at an elevation of 7,000 feet, temperatures at night fall below zero and only reach 15 degrees during the day.

The mountainous terrain also makes wireless Internet communication difficult, Lang said, making the troops feel even more isolated from home.

Lang tells her students about kids who have both parents deployed overseas and how difficult it must be for them.

The Olde Orchard kids are not untouched by the war, Lang discovered. Half of them have family members in the military.

Visit www.amillionthanks.org or www.valentinesfortroops.com for information on sending messages to troops.

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