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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 10, 2009

Kids send letters and love to local soldier, lonely in Iraq

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The boy bends to his task with care. He is coloring a paper Christmas tree ornament — an angel.

Never mind that the outline clearly shows a girl with a long skirt. Never mind that most of his classmates have selected bright colors for the angel.

“I decided to make a boy angel,” says the fourth-grade student, who gives his name formally as Andrew William Hillen Korchowsky.

His angel has an Army hat and is colored in camouflage patches — drab grays and browns and greens — penciled with care.

The angel will fly to Iraq to perch on a Christmas tree for a division of the Army’s Fox Company. One of the soldiers in the platoon is Cale Shields, the son of Lynnwood Elementary teacher Karen Shields.

He is 21 and, although his mother is very proud of him, she worries about him being so far from home, in the midst of a war, at Christmas time.

“Cale will call and say, ‘Mom, I just needed to hear your voice.’ And this to a mom who used to say, ‘Pick up your bike,’ or ‘Do your homework,’” recalls Shields.

“For most of his troop,” says Shields, “this is their first year out of the USA during the holidays and it is devastatingly lonely.”

Shields says she gets through it by praying a lot. She has two children, two sons, and both of them are in the military. “I have a very strong faith,” Shields says. “My sons and thousands of other mothers’ sons are there. My pride in what they are doing takes over.”

Sometimes, though, it’s tough. “Putting up the Christmas tree this week, I took out their stockings and their little Santa letters…That’s why mothers keep those notes,” she says, her voice trailing off.

“We need things that smell like home”

“This is Cale’s first Christmas away,” she goes on. “He was away at Thanksgiving. They cooked turkey and decorated the dining hall. There’s nothing like having your own stuff at the holidays…Cale says, ‘We need things that smell like the U.S., like our homes and families.’”

To that end, the fourth-graders have collected Christmas treats for Cale’s platoon, ranging from the practical, like shampoo, to the playful, like candy.

The kids are impressed that Cale said he and his buddies “smell like feet,” and repeat the phrase frequently. Desert temperatures are often over 100 degrees, the kids report, and running water had been scarce.

“Cale asked the guys in his troop what they wanted for Christmas,” Shields said, “and it’s a dentist’s nightmare.”

“It’s kind of hard to look at all the candy and not eat it,” commented fourth-grader Joey Guice as he gazed at the laden shelf.

“We’re not sending any chocolate because it would melt,” adds classmate Matt Kinnally.

A world map behind the gathered goods pinpoints Cale’s location in Iraq. It also pinpoints that of his older brother in the Air Force, Corey, who completed two tours in Afghanistan and is now stationed in Antarctica.

“I was a single parent, raising two little boys,” recalls Shields. “They always wanted to be in the military. They were gun crazy…and they wanted to see the world.” Both of the boys went to Lynnwood Elementary, then on to Farnsworth Middle School, before graduating from Guilderland High School.

Corey went on to Hudson Valley Community College and then graduated from Brockport with a degree in history. He works now on a flight crew, loading heavy equipment onto planes and is passionate about his work, his mother said.

Cale, who graduated from Guilderland in 2006, went to Schenectady County Community College for culinary arts, completing the program in a year.

“He went into the Army as a cook,” his mother said, “but he really wanted infantry.” His job varies, she said, ranging from re-building engines to being out in the field on maneuvers.

“The competition between the two of them is ridiculous,” said Shields. “When they were kids, they would fistfight in the backyard. It was about who got more chocolate cake at a birthday party. Now, they’re arguing over who has bigger guns. Now it’s about whose job is more difficult.”

“Heavy heart”

After training at Fort Knox in Kentucky and then at Fort Riley in Kansas, Cale was sent to Kuwait this past summer. His unit is now getting ready to be sent to Afghanistan.

Shields told The Enterprise last week that she listened to the president’s speech about the planned military build-up in Afghanistan “with a heavy heart.”

“Both of my sons have told me that it’s absolutely necessary; we need to be there for stability,” she said. “The terrorism in Afghanistan is horrific.”

Shields added, “I do not talk about anything political with the kids. I talk about the jobs my boys do…They’re over there keeping the world a safe place. When the kids bring up questions about death, I say, that is part of war.

“Then I bring up something else,” she said, giving an example, “Did I tell you Cale chased camels on his day off?”

Shields added, “Not that war is fun and games.”

When a child wants to ask Cale if he has killed anybody, Shields responds, “How do you think that would make Cale feel?”

Asked if her sons are afraid, Shields tells The Enterprise, “For my sake, they don’t tell me they’re afraid. They tell me they’re lonely.”

She gives examples, though, that hint at their fears: “Cale told me they were going into town a hundred miles from the base…when an IED went off right before their truck went through,” she says of a homemade bomb, referred to as in Improvised Explosive Device. “It was there; it was real and right in front of them…

“Corey said they’d be sound asleep and a missile would blow up a section of the base. He said you don’t ever forget the sound of an incoming [missile].”

Letters from home

Every week, when Cale corresponded with his mother through Facebook, a social networking site, Shields would relate comments her students had made. She recalled, “He said, ‘Mom, why don’t they write to me?’”

Letter-writing is part of the required state curriculum for fourth-graders so Shields made a lesson out of it. Each of her students wrote to Cale on the school’s laptop computers.

The letters are direct and guileless.

Ethan Keleher wanted to know if Cale has ever ridden a camel or in an Army Hummer, Jeep, or Ford. He also wanted to know Cale’s favorite games and favorite food. Ethan’s is pizza.

Chloe Fisher not only wrote but also drew. She pictured herself, always in a ponytail; her dog, Bandit, spotted with a smile; and her dog’s tennis ball, presumably a favorite toy.

The kids described the essence of themselves in their letters to Cale.

Samantha Stern wrote that she has a hamster named Nibbles who is “soooo cute.” Layla Cooper wrote that she likes to do arts and crafts, and paint comics out of magazines; she also revealed, “I really like to talk a lot. Ms. Shields says I need to be quiet ’cause I never stop talking and humming.”

Cheryl Blank wrote that she was born in South Korea and she plays the clarinet, with her first concert on Dec. 14. Ryan Gunderman wrote, “One of my favorite sports is soccer because you get to run around and you aren’t alone. You have a team to help you.”

The kids’ questions are equally as penetrating.

Trevor Long asked what kind of gun Cale has and if he has any badges.

“Do you miss your family?” asked Allison Rosa. “It is a good thing you have your ‘battle buddies.’”

“How many people are at the same camp?” asked Andrew Korchowsky. “Are there any girls? What is the camp like? Do you see anything beside sand?” He concluded by writing that joining the Army was “really brave.”

 John Tricozzi asked Cale, “What is your favorite animal? Mine is a dragon. Lots of people say they don’t exist but I think they were here when he dinosaurs were here.” He also asked Cale, “Do you have any ninja skills or spy skills?”

Stephanie Ford wanted to know, “Have you ever seen or talked to Iraq civilians?”

“I think it’s just awesome that you risk your life for us,” wrote Trevor Donovan.

Amanda LePore ended her letter to Cale with these words “Thanks for saving us.”

“Real soldiers and real citizens”

As the fourth-graders colored Christmas ornaments for Cale last Friday, they talked eagerly about their letters and the gifts they were sending to Cale’s platoon.

Joey Guice said, “I told Cale I want to be in the Army, too.” Joey said he likes watching war movies. “I haven’t decided if I want to be a Marine or in the Army...I’d be good with planning things if there was ever an attack,” he said. “I asked Cale about the job. I know it’s hard work.  You have to do a lot of jumping jacks and push-ups…It’s really hot there, too.”

“Ms. Shields said its 110 degrees,” chimed in Hannah Armony.

She also expressed sadness that Cale is away from his family. “He has a little baby, Riley,” she said. “She is seven months old and he won’t see her until she is a year-and-a-half.” (Shields said that her granddaughter was named after the fort where her son had been stationed and she will, indeed, be 2 when he sees her again.)

“If I join the Army,” said Joey Guice, “if I ever have a kid, I’ll be scared for my kid and my mom and dad that I’ll never seem them again.”

“We were kind of nervous when we found out that Cale was moving from Iraq to Afghanistan,” said Matt Kinnally. “We’re nervous about that because the war is going to be worse there.”

Kinally also said that Cale and other American soldiers were not just fighting in Iraq but also helping to build schools and aid the Iraqi citizens in other ways.

Shields said that many 9- and 10-year-olds “only relate the war on terror to 9/11.” She said, “They think of the towers blowing up.”

When her fourth-graders began the school year, she said, “They didn’t know there were people over there that were good and kind. They were just the bad guys…Now they’re reading about real soldiers and real citizens.”

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