Soldier visits 2nd-graders after thank-you cards

It all started with a little girl named Sydney Smith, who is in the second grade at W.R. Odell Elementary School and was worried about her uncle.

"She was sad to hear I wouldn't be able to come home for Christmas," said Army Spec. Michael Barton. "With my job, we go alert cycles, where at any given time, if a natural disaster is to occur, we are sent out with 12 hours of notice to provide relief to those affected.

"Sydney asked her teacher (Windy Atkins) if they could write to me."

So all the students got together and sent Barton cards wishing him a Merry Christmas and thanking him for everything he does in the military.

Barton has been in the Army for almost three years and is stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia.

"I am assigned to the 690th Rapid Port Opening Element," Barton said. "We are responsible for providing humanitarian relief and support when disasters occur all over the world.

"I am going to be re-classing to a new job. which means there is a great possibility that my name will be selected for a deployment."

Barton loved all the Christmas/thank-you cards and wanted to send something for the kids to thank them.

"I sent the class a U.S. Army flag and a coin with my name and rank engraved on it."

But the best part came last month, when he made a surprise visit to the class and they all got to meet him in person.

"I told the class we would be eating lunch in our room since it was Friday; a reward for good behavior that week," said Windy Atkins, the second-grade teacher who arranged for the class to correspond with Barton and for the surprise visit.

"Once they were all settled in the room, Specialist Barton came in. The kids were so excited and full of questions."

I asked Atkins why she thought it was important for the class to meet Barton.

"My idea for this stems from the fact that my both of my grandfathers were World War II veterans," she explained. "My paternal grandfather served under Gen. (George) Patton and was in the Army division that liberated the Büchenwald concentration camp."

Atkins, the students and Barton all plan on keeping in touch throughout his likely deployment.

"I believe the students are seeing the importance of supporting our troops," Atkins said. "Through talking with Specialist Barton, the students are beginning to understand that our military is there to protect and defend and not just carry guns and shoot people, which is so often portrayed on TV and in movies," she said.

"They are learning to place importance on the needs of others."