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Students Welcome Back Their 'Baghdad Buddy'

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23, 2003 – Fourth-grade students Allison Foster and Rebeca Reyes, both 9, said they were sad to see the military go off to war in Iraq. Reyes said she really didn't know much about the war, other than what her mother told her: "that my grandpapa was in the last one."

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Air Force Maj. Mike Lundy, chief of public health at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and school student council adviser Margaret Panik pose with "Baghdad Buddies" and other Bren Mar Park Elementary School students Nov. 21. Panik organized the group at the Fairfax County, Va., school that sent letters, emails and "care" packages to Lundy and other airmen assigned to the 11th Medical Group deployed to Iraq. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample
  

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However, on Nov. 21 any sadness the two shared about the war turned to smiles when the "Air Force-Army guy" entered the room. The students often confuse his service branch, but there is no problem distinguishing who Air Force Maj. Mike Lundy is. For the students, Lundy is a hero in the halls of Bren Mar Park Elementary School in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

He had come to know the school and its students through taking part in the school's Read Across America Program -- a national education program that motivates children to read. Lundy would visit the school every other month where he would read aloud to students and vice versa.

Then he deployed to Iraq for four months in July and returned home two weeks ago. He came to Bren Mar Park Nov. 21 as a special guest at the school's monthly award assembly.

Foster and Reyes were among more than 100 students, parents and teachers on hand to welcome Lundy. The two students had written e-mails and letters to Lundy a total of seven times while he was deployed. He responded, telling them that he caught a few scorpions and snakes and how much he missed pizza and being at home with his family. Lundy, chief of public health at Bolling Air Force Base here, served in Iraq with the 11th Medical Group.

When students learned Lundy was deploying, Margaret Panik, Bren Mar's Student Council Association adviser, said many students became worried and asked if they could send letters to Lundy while he was away. She soon organized the "Baghdad Buddies" program as a way for students to keep in touch with Lundy. She would help round up the e-mails from students each day, often taking them by dictation, to send to Lundy in Iraq.

"We thought this was a way for the students to know if he was okay, to be pen pals," she said. "The students were thrilled beyond compare to take part in the program. They were excited to know what was happening over there. They felt like they could be part of what was happening in the news. They watched the situation in Baghdad a little more closely, than had they not known anyone over there," she said.

Lundy said shortly after his arrival in Baghdad the correspondence, mostly e- mails, came pouring in. "When I got the letters, there must have been at least 20 or more," he said. He knew he couldn't respond to them all, so he distributed some to members of the med group there. Ironically, Lundy found out one group member actually attended the Bren Mar Park school years ago.

Lundy said he distributed the mail to fellow group members to help him respond to the volume. The students wanted to know everything, he observed. "They wanted to know what it was like, where we slept, what was the food like, what we missed the most. They wanted to know if we had television, what we did during the day. They were basic questions, but they asked basically good questions," he said.

Students always asked if the unit was safe, or "if anyone in the unit had been hurt," Lundy noted. He said although no one in his unit was injured during the deployment, he was taken aback by that question, because it showed just how much the students "were concerned about us."

Panik said the students were concerned so much because Lundy had made such a positive impression on them. "When he left, they were actually afraid for him," she said.

Besides letters and emails, Lundy said the students sent packages too -- "cookies and personal-care items, like shampoo and baby wipes, the standard deployment stuff. We used that stuff up in a couple of weeks."

During his remarks at the assembly, Lundy told students the letters they had sent helped give the med group members a positive attitude while they were deployed. And he told them it was that having a positive attitude was something he learned in elementary school.

"One thing I learned is to always have a good, positive attitude," Lundy said. "Whether you are at school, or whether you are at work, or whether you're deployed to a combat zone, your attitude makes all the difference -- not only for you but for those around you." He told the students that when they find themselves in bad situation, it does no good to complain.

For their support and appreciation, Lundy gave the students a U.S. flag that had been flown over the Baghdad airport. In return, the students presented Lundy with a card signed by all Baghdad Buddy students, a certificate from the school and the one food he had missed the most while deployed -- a pizza.

Panik said she plans to continue the Baghdad Buddies program with airmen at the 11th Medical Group until "they all come home, or at least until they get tired of us."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Maj. Mike Lundy, chief of public health at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., speaks with students at Bren Mar Park Elementary School in nearby Fairfax County, Va., Nov. 21. Lundy spent four months in Iraq, during which time the school adopted him as their "Baghdad Buddy." Lundy said he received more than 20 letters from the students as well as "care" packages. Lundy said the mail and packages were good for morale during the deployment. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMargaret Panik, Student Council Association adviser at Bren Mar Park Elementary, poses beside the "Baghdad Buddies" program display posted at the school Nov. 21. Panik was the driving force behind creating the program at the school, and is hopeful it will continue until all the service members come home. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFor their support and appreciation for being "Baghdad Buddies" to the 11th Medical Group, Air Force Maj. Mike Lundy presents Bren Mar Park Elementary School students with a U.S. flag Nov. 21 that had been flown over Baghdad International Airport. Lundy was deployed to Baghdad for four months. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force Maj. Mike Lundy talks with a few of his "Baghdad Buddies" in the hallway at Bren Mar Park Elementary School after a brief ceremony Nov. 21 welcoming him home from Iraq. He was deployed to Baghdad for four months from his duty station at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample  
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