May 20-27, 2004
By Kristen Fox / SUN Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Students at St. Thomas School Greet Iraq Veteran After He Returns
BINGHAMTON –– After 10 months of prayers, notes and care packages, the students of St. Thomas Aquinas School finally came face-to-face with the soldier whom they called “a hero.”
On May 13, Colonel Terry Mitchell visited St. Thomas Aquinas School, which serves pre-K through third grade, to express his gratitude and that of his reserve unit for the support given by the school during their deployment to Iraq. Mitchell, of Clay, was one of thousands of reserve and National Guard Soldiers in New York State who were called to active duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom last year. He returned safely from fighting in Iraq on March 30. “I am here to thank everyone,” Mitchell told approximately 118 excited students who packed into the school’s cafeteria to meet him. “Your prayers, packages and cards supported us in our mission to help rebuild the city of Baghdad.”
The relationship between school and soldier began when Father Charles Vavonese, administrator of Holy Trinity Church in Syracuse, referred Mitchell to the school’s principal, Sister Patricia Coyle, MFIC. The soldier was one of Father Vavonese’s graduate students in a class he taught in Syracuse for the Marist College program. At the time Mitchell was deployed, St. Thomas’ students were e-mailing and sending packages to soldiers in Iraq. Sister Patricia added Mitchell to the school’s list and the students began communicating with him regularly. “I knew that he [Mitchell] was a Catholic and I thought he would like that kind of communication with the students,” Father Vavonese said. “These folks over there are in harm’s way. The more prayers and support we can give them, the better.” Sister Patricia said the students wanted to write letters to “let the soldiers know they were thinking of them.”
“Every family in the school has in some way or another been affected by war,” she said. “So many people feel helpless, but there are things we can do to show our prayers and thoughts are with the soldiers.” The children sent Mitchell, as well as their other “adopted soldiers,” gift boxes filled with everything from food to pictures. Also included in the packages were disposable cameras so the soldiers could take snapshots in Iraq and send them back to the children. The students compiled the pictures into two large scrapbooks. “There was an overwhelming response by the kids,” Sister Patricia said of the school’s project. “The bins that we used to collect items were overflowing.” The items were shipped with the help of Sharon Slilaty, a parent whose children attended St. Thomas School. Slilaty, who has family serving in the military, first got the school involved in corresponding with soldiers in Iraq when the war against terrorism began.
Mitchell said that he looked forward to the letters and began sharing them with his unit, the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade Headquarters Company, based in Riverdale Park, Md. While describing his experiences in helping to build a democratic society in the city of Baghdad, Mitchell presented the curious children with a slide show of his time in the capital city. “We provided support rebuilding the government and the economy and worked to preserve cultural and historical sites in Baghdad,” he said as scenes of American troops on Iraq soil flashed in the background. Mitchell also gave the children some insight into the country and people of Iraq. His slides included pictures of Iraqi children at school.
“These children are just like all of you,” he said. He then showed a slide of the American soldiers presenting the Iraqi children with school supplies. Mitchell’s interaction with the Iraqi children made an impression on third grader Whitney Torrance. “I like how he helped the kids in Iraq,” she said. “I hope the war ends soon and that all the soldiers are safe,” she added. The young students appeared well versed in war issues, asking the soldier questions about both his military experience and the situation with the war. “We were there to bring freedom to the people of Iraq,” Mitchell told the children. When asked by one student why the president won’t stop the war, Mitchell responded, “there are a couple of reasons.”
“Some people in Iraq keep fighting and attacking American soldiers,” he said. “There are also groups of Iraqis who are still doing things that will not let their country be free. We have to stay there until the people can have their own country back.” During his visit, Mitchell presented St. Thomas Aquinas School with a certificate on behalf of the 354th Brigade honoring the students’ efforts. In turn, he was presented with a St. Thomas Aquinas School shirt and a framed picture of him in Iraq that was taken with the disposable camera St. Thomas’ students sent him. The students and faculty signed the picture frame. “These gifts say thank you, welcome home and we appreciate you for coming today,” Sister Patricia told Mitchell. “We will always remember you and we hope you come back to visit.” Third grader Shane Salanger was happy to see Mitchell return safely from Iraq. He remembers writing to him and thinks the soldier did an important job in Iraq. “I think he is a hero,” said Shane. “He is helping other people be happy.”