When U.S. soldiers plant their boots on foreign soil, they represent, in a sense, all Americans.
Soldiers are students of conflict; all of us have something to learn from them. At Manhattanville College, 30 miles north of New York City, a national program is welding those experiences into personal lessons. Online, www.mysoldier.com matches soldiers with people willing to write to them and wear the program's hats and red bracelets.
Within 10 days of its launch, volunteers from all 50 states signed on, including many teachers. While "My Soldier" can stand alone using the tenets of character education, it also carries lesson plans for elementary curriculum requirements for letter writing, American history and global studies. High school students can earn community service certificates.
A spinoff epistolary activity, "Hats off to Veterans," kicks off this Veterans Day (Nov. 11) at www.mysoldier.com. It provides blank greeting cards to write to hospitalized veterans, along with hats to be mailed and suggested gifts.
"I used the My Soldier program in my classroom last year," said Maria Canzoneri, a seventh-grade teacher from the Massapequa Federation of Teachers on Long Island. "Each class had a different soldier. We collected goods and sent cards and letters to six soldiers."
Soldiers sent back letters and photos.
"The kids were so thrilled," she said, noting that they "religiously" wore their My Soldier bracelets.
"I want the students to appreciate the sacrifices that our soldiers make for our country and our freedom, past and present," Canzoneri said. "I basically chose this project because I wanted students to have a connection to current events and to put a human face on the war."
Lauren Friscia started a student My Soldier club last year, her senior year at Rye High School, not far from Manhattanville in Westchester County. She helped coordinate a walkathon and car wash that raised $1,000.
Maria Carlucci, Rye High support staff and member of the Rye Teachers Association, advised the club with operator Patricia Boyer.
The students now make trips to the Veterans Administration hospital in Riverdale, decorating a tree they donated with a different holiday theme each visit.
The high schoolers spend time with veterans who fought in Korea and Vietnam, along with other places whose names evoke pain and conflict. They sit with soldiers with missing limbs and mental illness.
"It's not something you learn in books," said Carlucci.
Juan Salas generated the buzz for My Soldier in 2004 after his studies at Manhattanville College were interrupted by war. During 14 months in Iraq, he was happy to receive mail.
He brought home an idea for some pizazz with a pen: getting letters to other soldiers. College leaders embraced the cause.
The response to My Soldier went from regular to large to super-sized: About 375,000 people have sent envelopes and packages to about 175,000 waiting soldiers.
The program emphasizes the forgotten art of the letter in the age of e-mail and text messages - "u know, l8r dude."
Anne Gold, a communications professor and member of the Manhattanville Faculty Association, said the project "will provide them with a good foundation." Students need to know how to write business letters, college admission letters and job applications.
Lesson lesson plans incorporate global awareness and social consciousness. On the Web site, click on "programs," then "lesson plans" for materials that include classroom discussion topics and questions.
"It's politically neutral," Gold said. "It's about supporting troops, not about supporting war."
That support rippled through the college community last year. They shopped for 300 families of soldiers, providing holiday gifts.
"It's been so successful because it allows people to help in a personal way," said Gillian Hannum, professor of art history and outgoing president of the Manhattanville FA.