A soldier’s visit


Dressed in his camouflage uniform and his tilted black beret, Army Specialist Josh Velez stood in front of the gym as the students of St. Andrews School silently prayed for the soldiers past and present who valiantly served their country.

The silence in the room was profound, as if each student could see in his or her mind's eye the life-and-death struggle in which Americans are engaged in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Dressed in their blue and white school uniforms, the students bent their heads as the slanted sunlight streamed down over them. Outside, the large windows, Broadway bustled with the usual traffic, the echoes of an occasional car horn reverberating in the room.

Specialist Velez had come to St. Andrews before at the bequest of his close friend Police Officer Mark Fabbricatore, whose duties include instructing school kids on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. But on this occasion, Velez had come to commemorate Veterans' Day and to talk about what it meant to serve his country, and to thank the students for the many letters they were sending to troops overseas.

Once the prayer was over, Velez, a resident of North Bergen, told the students how he had become a soldier. He talked about his friendship with Fabbricatore - who also served as a teacher at the Hudson County Schools of Technology.

"He was my teacher," Velez said.

So when Velez, currently 19 years old, thought about enlisting in the Army, he sought out Fabbricatore. "Two years ago, I started talking to him about doing something for my country," said Velez. "I told him I was going to enlist."

Fabbricatore suggested he think it over, and Velez said he did.

"And on my 17th birthday, I went to the nearest recruiter and I told them I wanted to be a soldier," he said.

Doing something for the kids of Iraq

Velez, who is a reservist attached to the 436th Movement Control Battalion stationed at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, compared himself to a United Parcel Service driver, and said his job required him to deliver materials to other military units throughout the world. This included deliveries to Iraq.

Soldiers overseas - even in war zones - perform a variety of duties, but also tend to take on programs to help the victims of the conflict. His battalion, in conjunction with other movement control teams stationed in Northern Iraq, instituted a program called Operation Helping Hands, which provided Iraqi kids with school kit donations, dental hygiene programs, school rebuilding efforts, and even helped a local women's union improve the conditions of women's lives.

According to the United States Army report, soldiers patrolling an area of the Riz Gari Mountain found a host of little children trailing behind them. The Iraqi kids were thrilled to see the American troops, but soldiers were struck by the children's lack of clothing, especially shoes.

Velez said his unit came across about 70 kids and began to give them some things to make life better. "We wound up adopting those kids," Velez said.

The commanders of several units decided to set up a committee to find out what local kids needed and to seek out resources back in the United States that would help provide the items.

Along with local officials, army personnel paid visits to a local school to distribute items that included Crayons, markers, coloring books, school glue, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, pencil-sharpeners, folders, post-it notes, construction paper and candy. Outside the school, the Iraqi children gathered around the troops, seeking to touch the soldiers or hold their hands and repeatedly asking them their names. Since then, the program has been expanded to include assistance to a local clinic and partnership-in-education programs, designed to foster pen-pal type relationships to promote cultural awareness across Iraqi/American borders. The bulk of this program was supported through the efforts of Velez's unit in Staten Island.

Student doing their part

Velez said support from home is critical to the soldiers overseas as well, and that letters from home meant a great deal to those on the front lines.

St. Andrews students have taken part in Operation Interdependence, a civilian-to-military delivery system that allows Americans to demonstrate their support for the troops. The goodie bags that go into the packages are quart-size Zip-Lock bags that are sent to pre-designated military units with letters included in each bag. "We put together packages for the troops, sending them things that will remind them of home," said Anthony Ward, who had come to the event to thank the kids personally as part of the ceremonies. "But when the soldiers write home to thank us, they always tell us to thank the kids."

Along with the various small items sent to the troops, each package carries the voice of home in a letter from some civilian seeking to cheer up those so far away. Most of the students assembled in the gym raised their hands when Ward asked how many had written letters.

Student Andrew Mernar said later that his letter had included information about who he was.

"I thanked them for fighting for our country," he said. "I wanted to know that we here supported the troops." Mallory O'Brian's letter had a similar theme.

"I told them what my interests were and thanked them for being there," O'Brian said. "I wanted to show my support."

Carnellina Gagliardi also talked about herself in her letter, thanking the troops for helping the country. "I told them I was proud of what they were doing," she said.

Lindsey Rusnak shared with the soldiers in her letter what she enjoyed doing here at home.

"I thanked them for serving," she said. "I wrote because I wanted them to know how thankful I was for what they were doing."

Bridget Ward - daughter of Anthony - said she wrote letters in order to show her support and because she believed in what her family was doing.

Her father said others who want to be involved in the letter-writing effort or to sponsor boxes going to the troops can call (201) 858-4338 or (201) 858-9273.



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