By Margie Wuebker
Dusty Aller came face to face with his hero Wednesday morning in the transition unit at the Mercer County Educational Service Center.
Tears filled the young man's eyes as former high school friend Justin Cotterman walked in fresh from a U.S. Army Reserves stint in war-torn Iraq.
Aller moved in his wheelchair and craned his neck to look up at the towering figure in blue jeans and a green shirt. His mouth dropped in amazement and his eyes widened.
Sometimes words pale in comparison to the emotion of an unexpected encounter.
"Hey buddy, aren't you going to say something," Cotterman asked with his hand on Aller's shoulder. "Hi!" the 19-year-old said in a voice laced with amazement.
Their friendship goes back to Celina High School days when listening to Def Leppard and AC/DC, talking to girls and cruising the countryside represented the finer things in life.
"We had fun and we got into a little trouble along the way," Cotterman said.
Cotterman recalled other instances that don't elicit laughter, such as hearing his friend had been critically injured in an April 2001 traffic accident that caused brain injuries. Aller, who resides at Celina Manor Nursing Home, comes to the transition unit two days a week, where the teacher and educational aides describe him as motivated and dedicated.
Teacher Brenda Schoonover said Aller had been writing to Cotterman in Iraq since late last year.
Aller composed the letters himself using a computer with an adaptive keyboard. The one-page letters deeply touched Cotterman because he knew the effort that had been expended.
"I looked forward to Dusty's letters and wrote back," he said. "I had gone to visit him at the nursing home during my leave but he was out running around somewhere in his wheelchair."
Schoonover and other staff members learned Cotterman was home so they planned a surprise visit for the two friends on Wednesday. The party was complete with a red, white and blue tablecloth and a chocolate cake decorated with blueberries and sliced strawberries to resemble a flag.
Other students in the program knew what was to take place, but kept the closely guarded secret.
"We told Dusty his hero was coming home this month and he wanted to write one last letter," the teacher said. "He didn't have a chance to mail it."
Jamie Cotterman, who had kept Aller posted on her husband's experiences in Iraq, also came for the reunion and so did the couple's son, Austin, who turns 2 in July.
"Dusty always wanted to know what Justin was doing," she said. "That was always his first question whenever we ran into each other."
Cotterman's reserve unit specialized in construction -- everything from structures to rebuilding a soccer field at a village school.
After holding Aller's letter for nearly 20 minutes, Cotterman tore open the envelope, pulled out the single sheet and read the words printed in capital letters.
"Dear Justin, How are U? Welcome home."
This time it was he who seemed to be at a loss for words. Not all heroes march off to war; some wage battles of their own on the homefront.