Features

He sent, she sent

Military | Boys will be boys-and girls, girls-even in supporting U.S. troops

Issue: "Marathon man," Feb. 17, 2007

Snaps and snails and puppy dog tails. Sugar and spice and all that's nice. The differences between boys and girls are older than Mother Goose's 1916 nursery rhyme-and as new as the ways they respond to current events.

In Orange County, Calif., 17-year-old Shauna Fleming's national campaign to send thank-you notes to American soldiers has warmed more than 2.5 million warriors' hearts. In La Plata, Md., 14-year-old Zeke Peterson has taken a practical-and arguably more male-approach, sending soldiers something they can use in the field.

That "something" might not seem useful at first. Even Zeke was skeptical when in December his mom, Lisa, first showed him a news clip about Marcelle Shriver, a New Jersey woman who launched a drive to send planeloads of Silly String to Iraq. Shriver's Marine Corps son Todd wrote home to say that soldiers and marines used the pastel-colored party favor to detect explosive-rigged trip wires during house-clearing operations: If the string floated to the ground, the coast was clear. If it hung in midair-trouble.

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"Yeah, right," Zeke said at the clip's conclusion. Still, the idea piqued his curiosity so, being male and visual, he stretched fishing line between trees in his backyard and conducted a test. Sure enough: A squirt or two of Silly String highlighted the virtually invisible 'wire' as brightly as a flare guiding a midnight convoy.

Immediately, Zeke, whose dad is a former Marine Corps major, told his parents he wanted to join Marcelle Shriver's campaign.

He financed his first batch of Silly String with the proceeds from lawn-mowing. Then, over Christmas break, Zeke and his best friend, Andrew Moyer, took time off from paintball and Airsoft and went door-to-door at local businesses, asking for donations to buy the string at a cost of between $1 and $3 a can. After a local newspaper covered their quest, about 300 cans of the stuff quickly piled up in the Petersons' sunroom.

"Holy buckets, that's a lot of cans!" Mrs. Peterson said at the time.

She had no idea. By mid-January, Zeke's story had appeared on local and national news broadcasts and the Silly String mountain in the sunroom grew to 4,442 cans. Then, when President Bush announced his "surge" plan to send more troops to Iraq, Zeke turned to his mom and said, "We need more string!"

"Some people send cookies over there, but that's not really helping them," Zeke told WORLD. "Silly String is helping them."

Marine Corps Master Sergeant Ken Costello has served two tours in Iraq and said his 80-person unit appreciated practical donations like Zeke's. "On the other side, when we open up boxes and there are notes from Girl Scout troops, churches, other organizations, we like reading about the support they're giving us."

That's what Shauna Fleming thought when she launched her own grassroots outreach to soldiers. In March 2004, Fleming, then a freshman at Orange County Lutheran High School, pondered how to fulfill a school community-service requirement.

"I really wanted to do something for the troops," said Shauna, now a senior and a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. "I decided letter-writing would be the best way to let them know we were thinking about them and how much we appreciated the sacrifices they were making daily to preserve our freedom."

Shauna set a goal-to motivate citizens to write 1 million letters thanking the troops-and her nonprofit, "A Million Thanks," was born. Media coverage took the campaign national, and letters poured in from all 50 states and 10 countries, including Britain, Germany, Canada, and Venezuela. Students at Orange County Lutheran pitched in to count, sort, and screen letters. Within six months, Shauna had reached her goal. First, she traveled to Washington, D.C., and presented a framed copy of the millionth letter to President Bush. Then she set a new goal: To reach 1.4 million letters, "one for each military member serving on active duty."

By late 2005, Shauna had reached that mark, too. That brought Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the joint chiefs, to Orange County Lutheran High for the presentation of Letter No. 1.4 million. Then on Feb. 1, 2007, Shauna traveled to the Pentagon to present Sgt. Major William J. Gainey with the 2.6 millionth letter-a tally equal to the total number of U.S. service members, active duty and reserve, now serving.

Letters streamed in from people of all ages, with some of the most memorable scrawled in crayon. "Can you send a piece of a tank home to me?" one 5-year old wrote. Another child, age 7, invited his unknown soldier to write back, and taped a pencil to his letter, along with a nickel, two quarters, and a kindhearted postscript: "Here's some extra change if you want it."

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