Students visit with military pen pal
Gasps of surprise went around the second-grade classroom occasionally.
But none so loud as when Capt. Chris Phelps, a U.S. Marine who participated in the war in Iraq, told the students that most children in Iraq have no television, Nintendo or Gameboys.
Phelps, who is a family friend of teacher Chris Baska, visited the Tonganoxie classroom Monday morning. While he was in Iraq, Baska's students wrote to Phelps. In return, he wrote individual letters back to all the students.
Through his visit on Monday, children learned more about Iraqi youths their age.
One out of every four children in Iraq can't read, Phelps said, explaining that means they probably can't even read street signs.
Families live in mud huts that are smaller than most American family's backyard sheds. Their "drinking water" collects in a hole in the backyard and is carried into the house with buckets.
And, before the war, everywhere Iraqi children looked they saw pictures of their leader, Saddam Hussein. Phelps described Hussein as "an evil man."
"Saddam Hussein and his government were only taking care of a small number of people," Phelps said.
The rest of the people, he added, lived in poverty.
When one student asked why Iraqi children were sent to fight against soldiers, Phelps replied, "Saddam Hussein was an evil person. He did mean things to his people. That's why the United States decided it was time for a change."
Another child asked a simple question: "What was the war like?" Phelps replied: "It was scary. There were a lot of scary nights. War is not a fun thing. Fortunately, we don't do it very often."
When a child asked if they played checkers or other games while in Iraq, Phelps explained that he played no games over there. "There wasn't any moment over there that was fun," he said.
Phelps brought a slide show of photos he took in Iraq. Through his photos, children learned that many Iraqi citizens welcomed the Marines into Baghdad, and that some families even drove beside the military vehicles as they entered the city. One family had propped a homemade American flag in the rear window of their car.
Phelps, who has been in the Marines for 15 years, thanked the students for writing the letters to him. He said he shared the letters with other Marines.
"It really meant a lot to us to know that there were grownups over here who supported us and that they were talking to the children to let them know what we were doing, and why," Phelps said.
Phelps, who lives in Shawnee, encouraged the children to continue being patriotic. He reminded them to participate in Memorial Day activities, and to hold their hands over their hearts when singing the national anthem.