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thedrifter
04-08-06, 08:29 AM
Platoon visits pen pal students
By: BRENDA DURAN - Staff Writer

SAN MARCOS ---- For the past seven months, Chris Casteel's sixth-grade class at Valley Christian School has exchanged letters with a Marine platoon stationed in Iraq. On Friday, the students put away their pens and put on smiles to welcome the platoon home.

Eleven Marines from the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance platoon out of Camp Pendleton were greeted by 124 students at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school with balloons, posters and songs at a special assembly.

The platoon recently returned home from a deployment that began in September.

"We were looking forward to this day for a long time," said sixth-grader Sarah Offenbecher.

At the beginning of the school year, Casteel's sixth-grade class decided to start the pen pal project with the platoon as they headed off for Iraq.

In the coming months ---- through letters ---- the students and Marines would share their favorite hobbies, as well as stories about their families, developing a friendship that both groups came to cherish, said Casteel.

"It was so awesome for the kids," said Casteel. "It's really taught them about patriotism and the true meaning of the word hero."

In Casteel's classroom, there is a giant poster on the wall with photos the platoon sent the students while stationed in Iraq. One shows the platoon holding up a giant flag banner with the class's hand prints stamped on it, one of the many gifts the class sent.

Among other gifts were more than eight care packages that included treats such as M&Ms, beef jerky, pocket warmers and toiletries such as foot powder, baby wipes and tissue that the class put together monthly to send the platoon.

When the Marines returned home Thursday, they made sure to return the good deed.

The group signed green and black platoon T-shirts for the students, gave away patches with the platoon's name and presented the school with an American flag.

"It was a very neat experience for all of us," said Cpl. Justin Petty, a member of the platoon. "Some Marines didn't always get letters, but because of the kids they always did. It really showed us all that someone out there cares."

Casteel said her students were able to take away many lessons from the platoon visit and were also able to appreciate the role of the military.

"They got to see that these are real people who make sacrifices for all of us," Casteel said. "It was great."

For sixth-grader Hailey Burkhard, the pen pal experience was that and more.

"It was a life-changing experience," said Hailey. "You never what's going to happen to them, so its good to know you got to know one of them."

Contact staff writer Brenda Duran at (760) 761-4408 or bduran@nctimes.com.

Ellie