By Janie Southard
It began when a Celina teacher told his class to write a letter to any veteran they know. Ten years later, Phil Schlotterer said more than 200 letters have been sent by his Celina fifth-graders.
And, over the years, the veterans have written back and sent war mementos and shared their stories.
Last year, Vietnam veteran Steve Hayes replied to student Angel Young's letter thanking him for serving his country.
Hayes, who gave up his college education to enlist, told Schlotterer this letter was the first time anyone had thanked him for serving in Vietnam since he returned from military service some 30 years ago.
"I am enclosing my 173rd Air Borne patch that I wore in Vietnam ... Cherish your freedom every day and remember those who pay for it with their service and their lives," Hayes wrote to Young. Then there was C.W. Aufranc of Dearborn, Mo., who served with the 640th Tank Destroyer Battalion during World War II in the Pacific. He wrote to student Justin Hoffman: "I hope you never have to go to war."
Aufranc also said Schlotterer has been made an honorary member of the 640th.
"I never served in the military, but I so appreciate, not only the heroism of our veterans, but also the camaraderie of these guys," Schlotterer told The Daily Standard earlier this week.
Celina resident Bill Tathum was a tank commander with the 640th and has talked with area students at Veterans Day assemblies for a number of years.
Schlotterer recalled a number of interesting stories he has learned from veterans' letters, among them, the story of the jungle hooch.
In the Philippines during World War II a group of soldiers decided to cook up a batch of booze. They watched what the monkeys and birds were eating as a safety test of jungle fruits.
"They finally got it brewed, and it was pretty good, but they had no way to chill it. Until a pilot came along. He told them he'd fly the hooch straight up in the air and by the time he landed again, it would be nicely chilled. His only payment would be that they give him half their supply," Schlotterer said, adding it wasn't all that big a deal for the pilot as the land temperature was 110 degrees.
The teacher said he has stressed to his classes that all men and women who serve their country are appreciated and are the nation's real heroes. However, he recalls particularly the veteran who told him: "We left our heroes in the Pacific, in Europe, in Korea, in Vietnam and now in Iraq."