America Supports You: Iraq Vet Gives Back to Comrades
By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2005 After serving 14 months in Iraq and feeling firsthand the positive effects of letters from home, Army Staff Sgt. Juan Salas decided to start a program to benefit his fellow servicemembers still serving overseas.
Army Staff Sgt. Juan Salas, the founder of the pen-pal program, "My Soldier." Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Salas, who is part of the Army Reserve 411th Civil Affairs Battalion of Danbury, Conn., enlisted the help of his college president and staff and created "My Soldier." My Soldier supports troops serving in hardship areas by establishing pen-pal relationships between them and people back home.
"By writing letters and sending occasional care packages, civilians contribute to the morale and quality of life for troops serving on hardship tours," Salas said. "Participants are encouraged to get to know their soldiers well so that letters and care packages can be personalized, as they become 'family.'"
Salas created My Soldier Nov. 11, 2004, with the help of Manhattanville College President Richard Berman and professor Anne Gold. Salas wanted the program to be politically neutral and simply show support for the troops, he said.
To date, more than 400,000 people around the country and more than 175,000 servicemembers participate in the program, Salas said. Civilian participants come from different political backgrounds and include Vietnam War veterans, parents of soldiers, college students, families, scout troops and school classrooms, he said.
During his time in Iraq, Salas realized how important mail from home is to servicemembers, he said, and he wanted to ensure his comrades continued to receive messages of support.
"When I served in Iraq, my family, friends and people I didn't know supported me by writing letters and sending care packages," he said. "I have to tell you that that is one of the greatest feelings in Iraq: to receive a letter of support and encouragement. It gives you hope, and it gives you strength."
Civilians and soldiers can sign up for My Soldier on the Web site http://www.mysoldier.com, Salas said. Available on the Web site is a starter kit, which includes detailed instructions on how to begin and letter-writing guidelines.