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thedrifter
03-08-07, 08:33 AM
Marine makes surprise visit to local school
Chris Casey, (Bio) ccasey@greeleytrib.com
March 8, 2007

An unusual hush fell over the classroom of third- and fourth-graders. A tan-uniformed Marine, finger to his lips, snuck up behind his red-headed girlfriend, who was seated at a table. Between them, moving closer with each step, was a bouquet of pinkish-purple flowers the military man held out.

Then a tap on her shoulder, an "Oh my God!" and giggles all around. Then a hug. A very long hug.

Amanda Klein, an interpretive aide at University Schools in Greeley, lived up to her nickname, "Red," by turning crown-to-chin crimson at the sight of her favorite lance corporal.

Anthony Lockhart, on a three-week leave of duty after serving in Iraq, was expected to arrive Friday. Unbeknownst to Klein, he extended his break so he could pop in on her while she worked with the students at University. Lockhart also has a connection with the kids. In December, they sent him letters offering support and asking what it's like to be a soldier.

"I looked at him and was like, 'what, what, what?' It's like the neurons weren't connecting," said Klein, 20. " 'My God, he's here.' "

Playing middlemen on the surprise were Klein's mother, Jill Dodson-Kane, and University middle school Principal Paul Kirkpatrick.

"Jill just called and said would it be possible to surprise Amanda by bringing him in completely out of the blue. I was in favor of that," Kirkpatrick said. "I'm a bit of prankster by nature."

Just 45 minutes before Lockhart's 1 p.m. arrival in Greeley, Dodson-Kane, who drove from Colorado Springs on Wednesday with Amanda's grandfather, George Dodson, had to play dumb -- again -- to her unsuspecting daughter.

"She called to complain that (Lockhart) wasn't answering his phone," Dodson-Kane said. "We were parked in a parking lot." Added George Dodson, "We were holding our breaths."

The scheme worked to perfection, much to the delight of the kids, who were just hours from starting spring break.

After hugging Klein and watching her return to normal color, Lockhart unfurled a red, white and green flag with gold Iraqi lettering. "Operation Iraq Freedom, 2005-2006," it said. Lockhart, still early in his four-year term in the Marines, recently served six months in Iraq, driving Humvees and other heavy vehicles as a motor transport operator.

"This is for all of you for writing me," Lockhart, 22, told the students as he held the flag.

In this 30-member class, taught by Dana Jones and Doug Wurst, who launched the letter-writing campaign, five students are deaf or hard of hearing. University Schools is the site of Greeley-Evans School District 6's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, where hard-of-hearing students mix with other students across the grades.

The children, sitting cross-legged on the floor, peppered Lockhart for 15 minutes with questions on Iraqi weather, showers, food and injuries. Klein stood next to Lockhart and translated his answers by hand signals.

Asked what he did in his free time in Iraq, Lockhart said, "Talking to (Klein) most of the time is what I did to take my mind off where I was."

He said he was never hurt. But he replaced an injured corporal in his unit, which was based in Fallujah, an area of heavy fighting near Baghdad.

"His hips got crushed" by falling armor, Lockhart said. "He's fine now. He's going through physical therapy."

Several students groaned.

But the rough-and-tumble Marine was here to show his soft side -- the side he most shows Klein, an elementary education major at the University of Northern Colorado. She phoned him regularly in Iraq, in addition to sending letters at least twice a week and care packages every other week. She avoided watching news reports.

They will spend much of his leave together and he told the class he'd be back for another visit after spring break. He will fly back to his base in San Diego before his next assignment -- possibly in Iraq again. "They just tell me where to go and I go."

Despite the dangers of his job, he loves being a Marine, Lockhart told the kids.

A girl hand-signaled a final question: 'How long did it take to write the letters to the class?'

"Three days," he said. "I was hurrying, as you could tell because my handwriting is not that good. ... I was glad to write them."

A chorus of "thank yous" followed. Then the kids got up and several gave the surprise visitor a hug.

It was Lance Cpl. Lockhart's turn to blush.

Ellie