Spc. Brian Schulze calls home every time his unit returns from a trip into the mountains of Afghanistan.

Schulze's unit, the 25th Infantry Division, hunts al-Qaeda operatives, and he wants to tell his mother, Michele Abbott of Thomasville, that he has made it back just fine.She doesn't have to wait for a letter from the front, just a phone call.

The voice on the other end may sound tired, the line may create an echo of his words and, sometimes, there's buzzing or static.

But it's her son, and he's alive.

In wars past, families on the home front would wait weeks, sometimes months, to receive letters from their soldiers in Germany, France, Vietnam, Korea and other hot spots around the world.

Now, e-mail and satellite phones have made connections instantaneous.

Now, families can hear the fear, homesickness or pride in their loved ones' voices.

The phone calls, e-mail and occasional letters provide an unbreakable connection between families and their soldiers, just as they have during every war this nation has fought.

We've asked our readers to share the correspondence soldiers and Marines have sent home from the front.

The men and women talk about their wartime experiences, the lessons they've learned and what they are most thankful for in life.

Last month, Schulze called home to tell his mother about the recent elections in Afghanistan and how more than half the students in schools there now are women.

"That never happened until we came here," he told her. "We're a part of history now."

Indeed, they all are.

From: Spc. David Davidson, 22, of the 125th Signal Battalion, stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, the son of Helen Davidson of Burlington.

Note: David's family, friends and members of his mother's church, Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington, collected medical supplies and toys for his unit to distribute in Iraq.

\ Oct. 4, 2004,

"Today started out like no other day, and it is not because today was my birthday. I woke up early to go and deliver the medical supplies and toys to the Children's Hospital. We get there, and even though we had called ahead of time they had no clue we were coming or why we were there. OK, no biggie. We just explain why and everything is good. ...

In all, I had one box of baby wipes, one box of gauze pads, one box of hygiene products, one box of miscellaneous stuff (blood sugar testers, ointments, Tylenol, etc.) and 31 boxes of baby formula. ... Lastly, I had saved one box back. Since I've been in Iraq, people have been sending all kinds of things to me to entertain myself. Well, I decided to give all those things to the kids there. So, we are taken to the playroom where about 15 children are playing with one toy. And I don't mean they all had one toy each. There was one toy in the whole room. When the kids saw me of course they were scared, so I dropped my gear and went in. I tell you the smiles I put on their faces made this the best birthday ever, I thought. It didn't matter what I pulled out of my goodie box, they liked it. Although I think they like the suckers I had the best. Well, I left there feeling 20 feet tall. I wish I could have stayed that way. ...

"If I have learned one thing about being here (it) is how bad Saddam really was. My commander told me that we were going to check out a report of a mass grave that was found up north. Upon arriving at the meeting place for our guide, I was asked if I had ever been there before. I said, 'No, where are we?' This was the town that Saddam had wiped out with gas back in 1988. 'What!' I was not ready for what I saw next.

"I go inside the museum for a look. 5,000 people! 5,000 people were murdered that day. All 5,000 faces are on display along with their names inside the museum. The photo that is shown was taken after they were murdered. If this was not shocking enough, the mass grave we visited was even worse. To see a skull look up at you from the ground was not a pretty picture. In all, I saw the final resting place of 1,700 of those 5,000 helpless people. Needless to say this has gone from being my best birthday to being one I wish I could forget.

"In my opinion, if Saddam is charged and convicted of nothing else, it should be with the murder of those 5,000 people. Remember to be thankful every day for living where you do and having the freedom that we have always taken for granted, because the alternative is not pretty."

From: Lt. Matt Way, 26, of the 524th Corps Support, 25th Infantry Division (L) stationed in Afghanistan, the son of Dee and Margaret Way of Eden.

Oct. 3, 2004,

"The best thing going though is the Afghan people's excitement about voting. Yes, not all them fully understand the significance, but then again thanks to the Taliban they only have about a 30 percent literacy rate, hence on the ballot it has candidates' pictures with a symbol they are known by (ex: horse). The people will select their choice by placing their finger on an ink pad and then putting their print in the box next to their choice. The ink does not wash off for three to four days, so that way we can prevent people from trying to vote twice.

"There are 18 candidates running for president and, of course, Karzai is heavily favored. You might be surprised that the third-strongest candidate is a woman. Most of the candidates are highly educated and represent different ethnic groups since there are so many in Afghanistan: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns, and then these groups break down into tribes. There is one candidate though, Gen. Dotsum, a former resistance fighter against the Russians and leader of the Northern Alliance, that is rallying support by reportedly having his soldiers rough up citizens to make them vote for him: How is that for a campaign strategy?

"It is going to be an interesting election. Of course, if you compare it to our first democratic election, they are already ahead of us in some aspects: First, you do not have to be of certain color to vote. Second, the women can already vote (40% of registered voters are female). And third, you do not have to own land to vote. So many people are quick to forget that even America's democracy started out on rough ground, and it has taken hundreds of years to get to where we are today. How can we expect war-torn impoverished nations to meet our standards over night?

"That is just my two cents. I really sense from the people that for the first time in Afghan history there is real sense of hope, and the Afghan people are not going to let anything happen to that chance of a new beginning. They truly are some brave people, they are the very definition of survivalists."

From: 1st Lt. Rebecca Soplata, 30, of the 230th FSB, 30th BCT, 1st Infantry Division, family friend of Juli and Gary Hauser of Burlington.

Nov. 26, 2004,

"I am sure most of you enjoyed a day of stuffing your face and spending quality time with the family (something I wish I could have done). Our day here was a bit different, but still turned out to be one of my happiest days in (this) country.

"The day started out fairly normal; got up for an early morning run, went to work and then we received the best news of all. My soldiers (medics) were coming back from Fallujah and they would be back before noon! Nine of them had been sent out over a month ago to be attached to the Marine expeditionary force during the assault on the insurgents in Fallujah. They saw and treated over 130 casualties within the first week ... .

"These medics of mine are so amazing and act so well under pressure. The vehicles and equipment came back to us much different than the condition in which they left, but the soldiers were completely intact, which is the only thing that mattered. I looked at the track vehicles with RPG and bullet holes ... so thankful that everything went well. Many soldiers were not so lucky.

"Tears streamed down my face as I welcomed each of them back. The medics over here are truly amazing! Now, I may not have had a wonderful meal or time with my family, but overall I could not have asked for anything better than the return of my soldiers. It was a blessed day!"

From: Spc. Christian Herring, 22, of the maintenance platoon of the 1452nd Transportation Company , stationed near Baghdad, Iraq, the grandson of Charles Weldon and Lilly "Mickey' Fields of Greensboro.

May 29, 2004,

"One good thing is that there are a lot of interesting things that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. It is sad to see what 30 years of tyranny can do to people. There is a lot of hope for these people. They have talent and they want to do more and they can. The children are beautiful and they seem happy and glad to have freedom. We are doing the right thing and I am glad to have the opportunity to be a part of this operation.

I love y'all so much and cannot wait to see you again at the lake. Thank you again for the mail and prayers. It means the world to me."

* * *

From: Staff Sgt. Joseph Robinson, 55, with the HHC 230th, stationed at Camp Caldwell, Iraq, the husband of Mary Robinson of Eden.

September 2004,

"It's not a picnic here. There are a lot of things happening. I am ready to come home, maybe soon we will be there. I love you and know there is a higher power that's keeping us for each other. Kiss all the kids and tell them I'll see them soon. We are looking forward to coming back home for good. I miss everyone at school, church and home who are praying for all us guys. We really appreciate every prayer, letter, box or card that is sent. Hope everyone has a great holiday."

From: Maj. Cathy Gaines, 36, of the 379th Emergency Medical Group stationed at the Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, daughter of Juli and Gary Hauser of Burlington.

July 14, 2004,

"Thanks again for all of your packages and cookies. It means a ton. It's great getting mail even if it's crappy catalogs. (Yes, some people had their spouses forward them even the catalogs. Hey, it passes the time.)

I hope Gary likes his hot sauce and T-shirt. I wanted him to get something just for him. I think I sometimes lose sight of him in the general love I send home. He is such a blessing in my life. After Dad, it would have been easy to give up on men altogether. Gary has a true soul and a heart full of love. I'm blessed to be a piece of that.

Well, I love you mom. You are a huge piece of the best parts of me."

From: Staff Sgt. Michael Poplin, 29, of Greensboro, of the 557th Military Police Company stationed at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, grandson of Majorie Parker of Greensboro.

November 2004,

"I have been fortunate to see things that I have seen. While I will never regret the path that I have chosen, I will regret some of the things I have missed. ...

Although too short, the time that I am able to spend with my family means more to me than anything. ...

I just wanted my family to know that I Love You more than anything and that I hope you don't take for granted what you have right there. Stop and call in the middle of the day to say hi. Show up for no reason for lunch. And most importantly be there for the special things that happen within the family.

"Trust me when I say that there are many times where I would give anything to be right there with you."

\ Contact Allison Perkins at 373-7157 or aperkins@news-record.com

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