The following is a Guest Blog Post from Renee Swetlik:
It started as a simple thank you…And turned into a learning experience Homan Elementary School students will never forget.
In class this past January, Homan students talked about freedom and what it means to them. As the school librarian, I created a Letter to a Hero center in the library, and the students rose to the challenge by writing to Wounded Warrior Heroes who have served our country in the U.S. Military. Our goal: to say “thank you” and brighten their day, if only for a moment.
Over 500 letters were sent to Operation Gratitude for their Wounded Warrior Care Packages.
In February, we received a letter from Carolyn Blashek, President of Operation Gratitude. In her letter she stated: “The recipients of your generosity will remember your kindness forever.”
Even then, we did not truly understand just what an impact these letters make!
Soon after, we were thrilled, honored and very humbled to receive an email response from Gunnery Sergeant P. Ernesto Aquino. Here is an excerpt:
“I am a U.S. Marine wounded warrior who received an ‘Operation Gratitude’ care package this week while participating in the 2014 Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Trials held at Camp Pendleton, California. I am competing in cycling, swimming and air rifle shooting. In the care package I received a letter from Wyatt. I wanted to reach out to you since your name and information was on the letter so that you may reach out to Wyatt and thank him for me. Please tell him that he is my ‘Hero’.”
We were so excited to hear from someone who received one of our letters! We never expected it. Several e-mails were exchanged with GySgt. Aquino. We wished him success at the Wounded Warrior Trials and he shared pictures of his medals (one gold, one silver and two bronze). He even looked up Homan Elementary School’s phone number and called us from California one afternoon.
In April, we sent Gunny Aquino a banner we made congratulating him on all his hard work and perseverance. Each student signed their first name and we mailed it out to California.
What happened next still brings tears to my eyes. On May 7th we received a letter from GySgt. Aquino. Here are some excerpts from that letter:
“For two weeks, we withstand stress, frustration, fatigue and pain!! The trials are a way to brighten our spirits. Our Motto is the Latin phrase ‘Etiam in Pugna’ which means ‘Still in the Fight’. Not ‘in the fight’ as in war with foreign enemies; but the ‘fight’ within ourselves to get better and continue the legacy of American Soldiers, defenders of our country and our principles.
The trials mean a lot to me…. In the heat of competition winning a medal is the ultimate victory over stress, frustration, fatigue and pain.
I am sending you my gold medal…. It was my personal ultimate victory and I want you to have it.”
I cannot put into words the affect the gold medal had, and continues to have, on our school community. Once the students had the opportunity to hold the medal, they wrote down one word to describe GySgt. Aquino and how they felt when they held the medal.
Our story was featured in the local newspaper.
At the end of May, we sent Gunny Aquino our letters describing how we felt when we held the medal. We also framed the medal and it now hangs in a place of honor in our library, serving as a reminder to always be kind and never give up!
The story continues. In September, Gunny Aquino once again participated in the Marine Corps Warrior Games held in Colorado. He made a special shout out video to our school that was posted online. The kids were so honored and thrilled!
Once again, we e-mailed back and forth and cheered Gunny Aquino on! He won three gold and two silver medals! The Marine Corps forwarded links to me so that the students and I could watch the Opening Ceremony, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. What an amazing, humbling, awesome experience! The students truly understand now what it means to be a “wounded warrior.”
During the games, I was contacted by the Marine Corps and interviewed via Skype. I was shocked. Why? We wrote letters, sent encouragement, etc., but that is nothing compared to what these men and women are going through. However, those letters and words of encouragement mean the world to these amazing men and women. I found out when I watched the video interview (“A Warrior’s Gift of Gold,” linked below) that Gunny Aquino kept his letter on his pillow during the games!
At the conclusion of the Warrior Games, Homan held a “Wear Red” day to show our support of Gunny Aquino and all his brothers and sisters in arms.
The story will not end there. We plan on keeping in touch with Gunny Aquino and continuing to support him, his family, and his brothers and sisters in arms as they all continue in their fight to heal. He has touched our lives in so many positive ways: the power of kindness is amazing, NEVER give up, and saying a simple “thank you” can make a huge difference to somebody.
We also plan on writing more letters to send to Operation Gratitude. Our story is just one example of the effect these letters have on our military personnel.
Please take the time to write a personal message of encouragement, support and thanks to our Service Members, Wounded Warriors and Veterans.
Whatever you feel called to do, please do it! I cannot put into words how much these acts of kindness mean to the men and women who serve or have served our country.
Mrs. Renee Swetlik
Librarian, Homan Elementary School