By Rebekah Pedo, Correspondent
WEST ORANGE, NJ — What is life like in the combat boots of a United States soldier in Afghanistan? Any student at West Orange High School knows it is different from life here in West Orange. It is hard to understand if we cannot put names to the faces of those who serve our country. The seniors in Jennifer Dahl’s fourth- and eighth-period classes have changed this.
Through Soldiers’ Angels, both classes “adopted” two soldiers from the same unit. Dahl’s fourth-period senior class adopted Jonathan, a 20-year-old soldier who plans to attend the University of Central Florida after his contract expires in order to get a degree in business management. He got a jump-start in November when he started taking online courses. The eighth-period class adopted Marc, a 24-year-old who loves his chinchilla, Gandalf the Gray, also known as “GG.” Marc has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. John’s University in Queens.
Soldiers’ Angels has several programs that connect citizens with the soldiers who serve their country. As adoptees, the seniors write to their assigned heroes. By mid-October, 53 letters had been sent to Afghanistan so that Marc and Jon could hear their names at mail call. Weeks later, Dahl surprised her students with individual responses to all 53 letters. Marc and Jon are now the students’ heroes and pen pals. Although the soldiers cannot go into detail about what they are doing, the students are learning about the lives and passions of these men.
The small deed of writing to a soldier sparked a passion in Dahl’s students. The seniors have gone beyond pen and paper by showing their appreciation in various ways. Since October, nearly 40 care packages have been sent. They were full of ground coffee and coffee filters, as per request of the soldiers, along with goods like candy, hand warmers and WOHS T-shirts donated by the athletic department.
Care packages have not only been filled with goods, but also with the creativity and art of students. Holiday-themed boxes were recently sent out so the soldiers could have a little taste of the holidays they will be missing here in the United States. The soldiers expressed their gratitude for the gifts and have had to add additional shelving to their site in order to accommodate all the incoming packages.
Writing a letter to a soldier seems simple; however it has become a movement at the high school. Various groups have joined Dahl’s seniors in caring for deployed soldiers, including Dahl’s sons, 3 and 6, who have also adopted Marc and Jon. Like the WOHS seniors, the two write letters to the soldiers with the help of their mother and make their own care packages at home.
The school’s JROTC program has also recognized the act by sponsoring RED Fridays on which students wear red to “Remember Everyone Deployed.” Of the remaining six soldiers in Marc and Jon’s unit, Dahl’s sophomore classes have unofficially “adopted” four of them to start their own relationships.
The efforts of Dahl and her classes did not go unnoticed by the Soldiers’ Angels organization. Dahl was named an Angel of the Month and her students were featured in the monthly organizational newsletter.
It is important to give recognition to the soldiers who ensure the safety of a country’s citizens; however, Veterans Day is not enough. In the age of texting and Facebook posting, a letter is heartfelt and genuine. As one Soldiers’ Angels adoptee put it, “What a great feeling it is to open a letter from someone you have never met before and feel so loved by a complete stranger.” The only difference is that Jon and Marc are no longer strangers.
Rebekah Pedo is a WOHS senior and participant in the Soldiers’ Angels program in Dahl’s class. This story originally appeared in The Pioneer, the WOHS newspaper.