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thedrifter
10-21-04, 07:35 AM
October 25, 2004

Grateful citizens boost morale in letters contest

By Vince Crawley
Times staff writer


“I remained with her until she died, which was about an hour. Then making a grave for her under the shadow of a mulberry tree near the battle-field, apart from all others, I carried her remains to that lonely spot and gave her a soldier's burial, without coffin or shroud, only a blanket for a winding-sheet. There she sleeps in the beautiful forest where the soft Southern breezes sigh mournfully through the foliage, and the little birds sing sweetly above her grave.”
— Sept. 17, 1862, letter from a Civil War nurse who discovered that a dying soldier was a young woman who had secretly enlisted alongside her brother


Tens of thousands of Americans are sending “thank you” notes to troops overseas in a letter-writing contest organized by a husband and wife who also tour military bases with a stage play based on wartime letters.

The play, “Letters from the Front,” has been in production since 1991, mainly on or near military installations. The show’s current version centers on World War II, but weaves together letters written during more than 200 years of American conflict, from Valley Forge to Iraq.

“Letters from the front are almost unique to American history,” said Marsha Roberts, the show’s producer and coordinator of the letter-writing contest.

The founding of the nation coincided with a rapid growth in literacy in the 1700s, she said, which means every one of America’s wars has been extensively and emotionally chronicled by letters between those on the front and those waiting back home.

“Dear Dad,” one young overseas soldier wrote in 1942. “What is going on there? Yesterday my July 13 issue of Time arrived. Today, as I read it, it makes me sick and bitter, and fills my mind with unanswerable questions. The drive for scrap rubber is a disappointing failure, the sale of war bonds is $200 million per month below government expectations, aggressive war must wait until after the November elections, steel laborers seek a dollar-a-day increase in raises. What kind of game is this that is being played in those United States? Is that our invincible, our proud country?”

Roberts and her husband, writer and director Robert Rector, started the spinoff letter-writing campaign as part of a contest in 1999. Instead of highlighting letters from the front, the contest asks Americans to write letters to the front.

This year, the contest runs through Veterans Day, meaning letters must be postmarked by Nov. 11. People from all over the country are invited to write 100- to 200-word letters that start with “Dear Service Member, I just wanted to say thanks for ...”

Winners will be awarded in three age groups — under 12, 12 to 18, and 19 and older. Winners in the two younger age groups will receive a $3,000 scholarship, while the adult winner will receive computer equipment valued at $3,000.

Entries are screened, then forwarded to troops overseas. Roberts said she received 25,000 entries last year, which were dispatched to units at the front.

One of the bundles of letters made its way this summer to Kirkuk, Iraq.

“I personally wanted to say thank you for the letters sent to my battalion,” one commander wrote in July. “Mail Call is a highlight of the day. My Battalion has 470 soldiers, and I assure you, these letters will be read over and over.”

Today, three years after the anthrax postal attacks that all but shut down the popular “any service member” mail program, most people who want to write a note to an unknown service member overseas must resort to e-mail.

That leaves something of a void.

“E-mail is great,” Roberts said. “But so many [troops] have told us there’s nothing like being able to fold a letter and put it in your pocket and keep reading it.”

Because Roberts’ program is handled through morale, welfare and recreation channels instead of the Postal Service, she plans to keep delivering the letters to the front for the foreseeable future.

“I just wanted to say thanks for fighting for our freedom,” 10-year-old Taylor Waltman wrote last year. “I’ve also learned that our nation is like a quilt, and what keeps the squares, circles, and triangles together is stitches. The little sections of the quilt stand for our people which come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. The thread is our freedom which holds in our hopes, dreams, and wishes. Without that, our nation would be broken. You are the most important part because nobody could make a quilt without a needle. The needle weaves throughout its nation.”

More information on the letters contest can be found at www.letters-from-the-front.com.

http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story.php?f=0-MARINEPAPER-450852.php

Ellie