Dear Vince,

Hi! This is Taunya. How are you? Are you going to be here during the Thanksgiving holiday? I can not wait to eat all of the turkey, pumpkin pie, and apple pie. Are you going to be here during the Christmas holiday? I hope so everybody misses you. My mom and dad will be writing you. You must be scared and bored in Saudi Arabia. I hope you like the picture. We are writing letters to service people in school. The reason I gave you Kool-aid is because our teacher said it would be nice to give you something that would be good with water because your water is not that tasty. Well my friend is going to start writing you. Good-By and good luck.

from Taunya Thames,


Central Middle School,



It's easy to imagine some of Central Middle School's students compiling wish lists for Santa Claus when they were a few years younger.

But many of their thoughts have been diverted this season from the North Pole to the Middle East, where they have sent hundreds of letters and packages of Kool-Aid to U.S. soldiers thirsting for home in the Saudi desert.

"I think the letters help the soldiers because it will show we support them. I don't think it will be like Vietnam," Megan Barry, one of about 20 students in a program for gifted and talented seventh-graders, said in English class earlier this month.

"I enjoy playing the clarinet and the piano. I also play soccer, lacrosse and basketball. However, this season I am taking basketball off; my knee has been giving me some trouble," Megan wrote. "Anyway, I think that it's very brave to stay in Saudi Arabia with the possibility of war.

I'm praying that there won't be."

More than 800 letters, written during the first week of November, were turned over for delivery to the troops by U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th. Most of them focus on how life continues back home, steering clear by design of Persian Gulf politics.

"I think they want to know more about you and what you're doing than asking about what they already know," said student Becki Johnston.

Josh Rudder was more blunt in explaining why his classmates -- most of them 12 years old -- avoided asking soldiers their opinions of spending the holidays in Saudi Arabia.

"I think the soldiers don't really want to hear about it," he said.

"They're worried that a lot of them or most of them are going to die. We didn't want to depress them."

When sending the letters, "we decided it might be a holiday message," said English department chairwoman Gail Condon. But as her students discussed their letters, they focused less on expressions of goodwill toward men and more on the inevitability of war.

With Christmas coming, the students voted 16-to-1 in predicting that the U.S. troops they wrote to would go to war with Iraq. Only Becki dissented.

"I just don't think it's going to happen. I don't think it's going to get worse," she said a few days after Saddam Hussein released Western hostages. "I think we should try not to got to war. It never helps anybody."

Becki concluded that both sides would back away and eventually come to a peaceful settlement.

Most of the class joined in her prayer, but only as a prelude to considering desert versus jungle combat, the relative merits of nuclear and conventional weaponry and the likelihood of a quick massive victory or a deadly protracted stalemate.

Wil Whorton argued there is so much at stake that the United States almost has to go to war.

"I think it's not just about the hostages," he said. "It's about getting Iraq out of Kuwait and, unfortunately, it's about oil."

He advised that, "if we absolutely have to go to war, we should use as much force as we can and finish as fast as we can so U.S. soldiers don't get killed."

But other students dismissed the idea that U.S. military power can push Iraq from Kuwait without major U.S. casualties.

"I wasn't around when Vietnam happened," said Josh, who was born four years after the fall of Saigon, "but nobody thought that some Vietnamese farmers could take on the U.S. -- and look what happened. It's not going to be wham-bam if we go to war. I think it's going to be a tough one."

Bruce Packett worried that the Persian Gulf crisis will stir a Vietnam-style domestic debate.

"I think this is a clone of Vietnam," he said. "With Desert Shield, we're protecting another country. It's like North Vietnam, when we tried to stop them from taking over South Vietnam."

Katie McCumber agreed, saying, "I don't really think we should have gone right in. We're too quick about wanting to go in and help everybody and putting ourselves in jeopardy."

If the Persian Gulf is a Vietnam clone, then the United States will fare poorly against Iraqi troops long experienced in desert warfare, Erin Ahmay said.

"The U.S. isn't going to be as powerful. Iraqi soldiers will stay underground and we won't know where they are," she said. "Maybe I'm edging toward (saying) that we might lose. I'm saying we won't have the resources.

We might pull out."

Lauren Evans said she considered whether the United States should use nuclear weapons to bring a quick end to war if it comes.

"Everybody knows about radiation and everything and that would hurt our country, too," she said.

But Saddam's nuclear potential also worries her, and his total defeat should be the U.S. goal, Lauren said.

"If worse goes to worse and we go to war, I hope he gets killed," she concluded.

Although Condon teaches English, she said that such debates are a regular occurrence in her classes.

"They think they're sidetracking me, but I think they need to express their opinions and be involved," she said. "I think they need to know they are more than a cog in a wheel."

Despite their pessimism about the probability of war, Condon said her students are still capable of more innocent hopes.

During an earlier class on King Arthur, the students "decided what we need is a hero to negotiate a peace," she said.

But Kim Ennis said, "I think probably if Christmas wasn't coming up, we would have gone to war already."

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