By Tony Parra
Valencia Elementary fifth-graders received a pleasant surprise on Thursday afternoon when one of their letter-buddies serving in Iraq greeted them in the elementary gym.
Larry Long, staff sergeant of the 1st Platoon, 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines, answered questions from a group of fifth-graders eager to ask about his experiences in Iraq. Long, a 1991 Clovis High School graduate, answered as many questions as he could.
Danna Smith, a Valencia fifth-grade teacher and the younger sister of Long, said she talked to her brother about the idea of having the students as pen pals last year when she visited him in California. Smith said the fifth-graders began writing the letters in August.
“We encountered a lot of difficult times,” Long told the students. “You miss your family while you’re there. The letters meant a great deal to us. They made you feel better. You don’t know how much those letters meant to us (U.S. Marines).”
Each of the students had pen pals and Long’s pen pal was fifth-grader Megan Combs. Combs said she wrote to Long twice and she received a letter from him.
“We talked about Mrs. Smith, because she’s his sister,” Combs said.
Smith said the students wrote to the 58 members of Long’s platoon. The Valencia students asked Long about his platoon, the sights, food and families in Iraq. Long told the students that all of his platoon members returned safely to the United States. He said they will be deploying back to Iraq in January.
“I was afraid for him,” Combs said. “I was just glad he came. I was wishing he would come.”
Smith said her students recite the pledge of allegiance each morning and that after sending letters to the troops, the pledge took a whole new meaning. Smith said a portrait of Long hangs in the classroom.
“They (students) loved the idea,” Smith said. “Every letter they received, they kept in a binder. Those kids amazed me. They would receive money for snacks (from their parents) and they would use it to pay for the postage of the boxes sent to the troops. I was impressed.”
There was one question Long could not answer and that was when one of the students asked if he had killed anybody. He said it was classified information.
For Dylan McKay, his question was, “When are you guys coming back for good?”
“You’ve got bullies who would like to see the disruption of Iraq,” Long said. “In my opinion, we’ll probably be there for two more years to help the country stand on its feet.”
McKay said he asked him another question and had some thoughts on Long fighting for the United States.
“He really supported our country,” McKay said. “I’m glad he supported us and it was nice to see him.”
Long presented a plaque to Smith and her students for sending letters to the troops.