Veteran Meets His Penpals

Veteran Meets His Penpals

As recently returned Iraqi war veteran Lt. Col. David Youngberg discovered, there are some differences between Vietnam and Iraq. People have learned not to blame the troops who lay their lives on the line for their country, and unlike Vietnam, even some who vehemently oppose the Iraq war have offered them moral support.

Youngberg was about 11 when he saw images of the bloody, violent Vietnam War on television. "I was about the same age as the kids who wrote me letters and sent me packages filled with candy and DVDs while I was stationed in Baghdad," he told The Standard last Sunday.

The kids he’s referring to are fifth- and sixth-grade Hebrew school students at the Barnert Temple Religious School in Franklin Lakes, and the letters and packages are those they sent to him during his tour of duty.

He’d come to Franklin Lakes with his wife, Carrie, and daughter, Sarah, ‘, to meet the children, who were restless with anticipation to meet a "real hero."

Barnert teacher Jesse Losch and the school’s secretary, Beth Greenwood — whose nephew is in Iraq — decided to have the students adopt soldiers and offer them moral support as they fought a war most Americans are ignoring. The women wanted to do a mitzvah, to do a little tikkun olam, and to let soldiers know that while they did the scary things they had to do to make the world a safer place, someone cared and was thinking about them.

The school has adopted three soldiers in Iraq, three soldiers in Israel, and a soldier in Afghanistan. They send Wet Ones, bottled water, DVDs, birthday boxes, and lots of candy and toys to their soldiers, along with letters filled with the mundane details of their lives and questions about what life is like under combat.

One of the class’s adoptees in Iraq was recently injured in a car bomb, and three of his best friends were killed. He was a scuba sniper and had to go in and bring out his friends’ bodies. He is, as Losch tells her students, "in really bad shape. We have to give him a reason to care about life." The children have been focusing their most recent letters on encouraging him and trying to make him smile.

Before Youngberg arrived, one of his pen pals, Ethan, 11, said he was struck by the similarities between the way the people were fighting the Americans in Iraq and the way the terrorists were attacking Israelis. Steven, 10, said it was strange to write to someone in a war, because they were so far away and their lives were so different from what they used to be.

Brian and James, both 1′, were really looking forward to meeting Youngberg, who they described as their hero. "We sent out a set of boots to one soldier, because when a car bomb went off, he was hit with shards of glass covered in rat poison. Some soldiers get gangrene from their wounds, and some didn’t even have first-aid kits."

Both boys said that what impressed them the most was that no matter what happened to him, Youngberg was always ready to pick himself up and get back to doing what he had to do, because compared to what was happening to the soldiers around him, he was lucky.

As they talked about Youngberg, the main door to the building opened and they raced to see if Youngberg had arrived.

A big man wearing a knapsack walked through the door with a woman and a baby. "That looks like it could be him, but his voice doesn’t sound as deep as I thought it would," said James.

"Yeah, I think it’s really him. He’s wearing a knapsack. It has to be him," said Brian, "Now I can finally meet him."

Youngberg, 4′, is a West Point graduate, class of 1985. Born near Buffalo, he was on active duty for 13 years and transferred to the Reserves in 1998. He saw action during the Gulf War, so this was not his first time in the Middle East. In civilian life, he and his family live in Manhattan, where he is in risk management at a financial corporation. In Baghdad, he was in the unit that trained the new Iraqi police and military forces, and basically worked in an office. His scariest moment was the night before the elections, when a shell fell through the embassy roof. "But nothing much happened, and everything turned out OK," he told the students.

He also thanked the students for the gifts they sent — from the Build a Bear in fatigues and dog tags, to the giant photo of the students that he kept behind his desk, to the year’s supply of Blo-pops, his favorite candy. In return, he presented them with dog tags bearing American flags, and gave Jesse Losch a prayer rug woven with the American and Iraqi flags, the map of Iraq, and the Phoenix to hang in her classroom, next to the election poster he’d sent to the students earlier in the year.

"I’ve witnessed the elections in Iraq, and I’ve been watching the elections in New Jersey, and I’ve got to tell you the elections in Iraq were more civilized," he quipped to students and parents who later gathered in the sanctuary to meet him and give him a round of applause.

Then Youngberg presented Losch and Greenwald with special battalion coins from his Reserve Unit in Lodi. He explained that "outsiders" are never given these coins, which are very special souvenirs, and then awarded them with certificates of appreciation, as well as the prayer rug. He also said it was wonderful that all ‘0 men in his unit came back and were adjusting well to civilian life.

As Youngberg spoke to the students and others over the course of the morning, he described how his men adopted an orphanage and school and would try to help civilians. Eighty percent of the people there appreciated the American presence, but the violence was costing us dearly, he said.

What Youngberg found most interesting about the children’s letters, which he would read and answer over the course of each week, were their descriptions of home life and how they spent the holidays. "When you are away from home, when you hear about how others are celebrating, it brings back memories of your own youth, and it really does make you feel better," he said. "I would write to the kids and let them know that they don’t have to worry about not having anything to say. ‘A soldier finds interesting even what you find boring, because that’s what they miss most about being home.’"