success stories

Posted January 4, 2004

The Powerful World of E-Mail to Evangelize

U.S. soldiers give Catholic school students
accounts of war in Iraq

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

The situation in Iraq became more real for students at Chicago's Incarnation School in December when Sgt. Ronnell Jackson of the Army's 308th Civilian Affairs Brigade came by for a visit.

The man who had been sending the school's junior high students e-mails and letters answered their questions and thanked them for gifts from the past nine months while on a December furlough.

Jackson, who knows one of the teachers at Incarnation, is a retired police officer whose reserve unit was called up at the beginning of the war and has recently been busy rebuilding schools and other facilities in the war-torn country.

Jackson and another sergeant from his unit, Dave O'Leary, answered questions from the students ranging from the mundane -- about what they wear and what they eat -- to the more profound, such as what it feels like to go into battle and whether they were ever scared.

Seventh-grader Thomas Kniefel, whose father serves in the Air Force Reserve and has flown several missions to the Middle East, said he has never had a problem thinking of something to write to the school's pen pal.

"I just told about things at home, like sports and stuff," he said. "I told him about the Cubs."

Many students were surprised at Jackson's sense of humor -- something that doesn't come through so well in e-mails from a war zone on the other side of the globe.

"When we heard from him, he sounded very strict, very stern," said sixth-grader Cody Smola, 12, of Alsip.

"I was thinking he would be like a soldier you see on TV or in a movie, all mean, but he wasn't that way at all," sixth-grader Michael Gapski told The Catholic New World, Chicago's archdiocesan newspaper.

And after meeting the soldiers the students said they were eager to resume their correspondence.

"I like writing to them, because I feel we should take part in the war effort," said eighth-grader Caitlin Schlomas. "Maybe we can't be there, but we can take some part."

In St. Paul, Minn., eighth-grade students at St. Agnes School also heard firsthand about the situation in Iraq from a December visitor, Charlie Anderson.

The students had already been in contact with Anderson because the seminarian at St. John Vianney in St. Paul had been making weekly visits to their religion classes before his Army Reserve unit was called to active duty in Iraq 11 months ago.

Although Anderson could have declined because of his studies, he chose to go to Iraq as part of a military police unit; the students also decided to keep in touch with him instead of meeting with another seminarian.

In letters from Anderson they found out about life and war in Iraq.

He was able to make a surprise visit to the school after winning a pass for a leave through the Christmas holiday.

"We've had a lot of close calls, a lot of bullets flying over our heads, but none found the mark," Anderson told the students, noting that his unit, the 79th Military Police Company, has not suffered any casualties or injuries in the war. "I really believe the prayers being sent over are overflowing to the rest of my company. It's like armor. The prayer is like an impenetrable armor that no one can pierce."

While in Iraq, Anderson has had a chance to put his studies for the priesthood into action by offering last rites to dying soldiers and Iraqi civilians. In mid November, he found himself working side by side with a U.S. Air Force military chaplain who was called on to pray with the injured and give last rites to the dying after a suicide bomber blew himself up at an Italian military police base in Iraq.

"I was right with him in the dirt, with blood everywhere," Anderson told the students. "It's something you never forget."

Anderson said the military's job in Iraq is not finished, nor is his duty, and he still ponders the fact that he could die there.

"You're faced with your own mortality. You look death squarely in the eye," he said. But he also told the students he is not afraid of death, saying, "I know my God is right there with me."

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Contributing to this story was Dave Hrbacek in St. Paul.