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thedrifter
03-29-06, 03:44 PM
Marine: 'Realizing you were thinking about us meant a lot'
Students who wrote to unit in Iraq offer praise for service, ask tough questions about war

Christine Mahr
The Desert Sun
March 29, 2006

PALM SPRINGS - For four years, letters and packages from the schoolchildren at Cielo Vista Elementary School arrived by helicopter - sent to Marines.

On Tuesday, the Marines arrived by helicopter from Camp Pendleton to thank them - and answer tough questions from the kids who sent them letters, drawings and packages in the battlefield.

"How many people have died?" a third-grader asked Lt. Col. Jim Mumma and Maj. Jeff Tontini from the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, which has been deployed twice to Iraq

"I'm not sure, but a lot of people are dying right now," Tontini responded.

"How many people have you killed?" another third-grader wanted to know.

"I'm not sure," Tontini said. "I've killed people and it's not a good feeling, but it feels good knowing I've saved lives."

"Have you been shot?" a third-grader asked Tontini.

"I've been shot at, but not hit," he replied.

Mumma and Tontoni arrived in a Marine AH 1W Cobra helicopter, landing in a field behind the school, with the chopper's blades whipping up enough wind to knock over two small tents set up nearby.

Mumma recalled how reading the letters from schoolchildren back home often brought smiles to the faces of the Marines in his unit during difficult days in Iraq.

"Sitting over there in that dusty, dirty environment and realizing you were thinking about us meant a lot," Mumma told about 600 students at the school.

For four years, the students have sent letters and packages to Pendleton-based Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, which has been deployed twice to Iraq.

The exchange of letters, e-mails, photos and gifts between the Marines and students started because third-grade teacher Amy Biggert's brother, Maj. John Walsh, was a member of the unit, based in Oceanside.

Even before being deployed to Iraq, the unit - and its pint-sized support group here in Palm Springs - saw tragedy. In January 2003, four Marines, including Walsh, were killed when two helicopters collided and crashed in Texas while working with the U.S. Border Patrol on a drug interdiction mission along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite the tragedy, Marines from the unit followed through with a February 2003 visit to the school that Walsh had planned.

"I think it was amazing they cared enough

One student asked what it's like to see other Marines killed.

"It's sad, but in this career, you do lose people, and this is my career," Tontini said.

Pointing to a gun on the helicopter, a student asked, "Who do you shoot?"

"We shoot the bad people shooting at us," Tontini said.

Class by class, the students also had the opportunity for an up-close look at the helicopter, which generated a lot of questions.

"Is it hard to fly the helicopter?" a third-grader asked.

"It's one of the hardest ones to fly," Tontini said. "But when you learn, it's easy, like riding a bicycle."

"How high does it fly?" another student asked.

"About 10,000 feet," Tontini said.

A second-grader wanted to know how fast the helicopter can go. "About 195 mph, ground speed," Mumma said.

During the morning program, several students read letters to the two Marines.

"Thank you for being there when we needed you," Katherine Nicks, 8, read. "You are kind enough to risk your lives for our country."

"You are a magnificent example for all of us," Jeanne Carizon, 8, read.

Mumma and Tontini also had something for the Cielo Vista students and staff - a plaque and an American flag they had flown over the Al Anbar Province in Iraq for the school on Sept. 11, 2005.

Printed on the plaque was the message, "Thank you for all the support with your letters and care packages."

Mumma said the visit Tuesday was a way for his unit to thank the school.

"They supported us by sending simple things - letters, books, candy that wouldn't melt," Mumma said.

"We'd hang their letters up and look at them, and they made us smile," he said.

Principal Lynda Lake said one of the school's projects was a scrapbook, each page containing something written by a student or staff member and a photo of the author.

Letters and e-mail sent from the California desert to the deserts near Al-Anbar, has helped students to visualize and comprehend what the fighters were experiencing in battle, Lake said.

And the Marines' visit Tuesday contributed to that understanding, she said.

"They see how much it meant to (the Marines) for students to send them e-mails and letters and the book," Lake said.

WHAT STUDENTS SAID
Students at Cielo Vista Elementary School talk about the Camp Pendleton Marines who visited their school Tuesday. The Marines, who've deployed twice to Iraq, and the students have been exchanging e-mails, letters and books.

"I think they are good examples of the Character Counts we're working on in school. Character Counts means trustworthiness, caring, responsibility, respect, fairness and citizenship."
Allyson Tollett, 8

"I really appreciate them. They risked their lives for us and care about us even if they don't know us."
Karina Cruz, 8

"They're protecting our country. (Letters) make them feel better."
Omar Marquez, 7

Ellie