Chad Shannon spent 13 months away from home and his family while serving in Iraq as a soldier in the United States Army.
The son of David and Carolyn Shannon, Storm Lake, he is married to Kate, whose mom, Kathy Bodholdt, was an instructional assistant in Amy Bailey's third grade class last school year. Steve Bodholdt is Kate's dad.
To give the young students an opportunity to brush up on their letter-writing skills, it was decided to send letters to Chad. It was hoped that the letters would also cheer him up.
The soldier, also a father to two young children, was thrilled to get the letters.
Chad's buddies also thought it was awesome that the children were taking time to write to him and many asked to read the letters.
Before long, the soldiers had selected letters to answer. The relationship continued throughout last school year.
The letters were sent, sometimes in bundles, to the school address. It was always a treat for the students to hear from their penpals.
Chad returned stateside last month and is now stationed Ft. Riley, Kan. He and his family had planned a trip to Storm Lake to visit family and his mother-in-law asked if he would come into the classroom to meet the now fourth grade students that had taken their time to write to him and the other soldiers. He accepted the invitation and Friday, when he came into the classroom, the students were in awe of his tall structure and his desert fatigues. Many of the students, whom had been writing to the other soldiers, were curious to see if any of them were going to accompany him. To them, Chad and the other soldiers are heroes.
"A letter from home always meant so much," said Chad. "It was great getting your letters," he said to the class.
He stood at the front of the classroom against the homemade sign the students had made and all signed as he answered questions of the inquisitive students.
What did Iraq look like?
It looked like a desert.
Did you ever have a desert storm?
Every day. There was so much sand blowing around you couldn't see the hand in front of your face.
What kinds of animals did they have there?
Sheep, wild dogs and occasionally we'd see horses. There were no pigs or cows.
How did the people in Iraq travel?
Cars, bikes, carts pulled by donkeys.
Did you ever help any people there?
That was my whole purpose - to help the people in Iraq.
Did anyone die?
In wars, people do die but no one was killed or hurt that was with me.
Are you going back there?
I don't know but if they ask me to go back, I will.
Did you find any money or gold in the walls?
No, but we did find a lot of valuables.
Did you see any kids?
The children came up to us all the time and asked us for water and food and even ink pens.
Do you know any Iraqi words?
I learned some but most of them I can't tell you because they were bad words. Some of the people weren't happy to see us. I do know one word I can tell you - ishta - and that means go away.
Did you see Saddam.
What was the hardest thing to get used to being there?
The heat. It was 125 degrees.
What did you do in your free time?
We didn't have too much free time but when we did we watched movies and played Play Station and X-Box.
Did they have any surprise attacks?
No. We're a better army then them.
Did you see any snakes?
Yes, they have snakes but they also have sand fleas. They attack people and are like mosquito bites. Bathing is important to get rid of them.
Chad brought Iraqi money to show to the kids - the old paper currency with the face of Saddam on them and the new, without his face.
He also shared the protective equipment that the soldiers wore include a bullet proof helmet and vest. Those articles, along with the weapon he carried, weighed in at 85 pounds.
He also showed the students a special medal he received for the service he gave during Operation Iraqi Freedom. "No mission to difficult, to great, duty first," it said.
The students also made cards for Chad to take with him as he continues his duty in Kansas. Chad's wife, Kate, and two children, Kylee and Kail, accompanied him.