Children plan Valentine surprise for soldiers

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Terry Wattles said Friday that his son Ryan, 22, and his fellow soldiers look forward to the boxes that arrive in Afghanistan from relatives, friends and even schoolchildren they haven't met.

"He told us that if someone sends a cake, everyone shows up with a fork," Terry said. "Everyone shares."

What Ryan Wattles doesn't know is that eight classes at Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat Springs are working hard this week on special boxes of Valentine goodies and cards to send not only to Wattles' unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but to troops in Iraq, as well.

Wattles is a door gunner on an Army Blackhawk helicopter. He attended school in Steamboat beginning in kindergarten at Soda Creek through high school graduation in 2001. His unit is scheduled to return to its home base in Hawaii in March or April, his father said.

Josh Heald, a student in Sue Barnes' third-grade class at Soda Creek, said he imagines that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are homesick during holidays such as Valentine's Day.

"At least you have company," Heald said. "He can pretend the soldiers are his family."

All of the students in Barnes' class were making personal Valentine's cards this week. One student pasted a picture of himself and his dog on the front of his card. Others designed clever three-dimensional hearts for the front of their cards.

Third-grader Tariel Weekslynn drew pictures of her favorite animals -- a rabbit and a turtle -- on the front of her card. She said her family decorates their home for Valentine's Day, so she can imagine that it would be lonely to be away from home.

"I think it would be hard to live without a family on a holiday," Weekslynn said. "We normally put a lot of pink and red balloons up and a million cards are spread all over the place."

Students and teachers at Soda Creek take turns sending a box to Wattles on a monthly basis. They decided to undertake the project at the urging of retired Soda Creek Principal Steve Kaufman, who is a friend of the Wattles family.

"Ryan was a neat kid, and now he's a neat young man," Kaufman said. "The thing I was thinking was, it would not only benefit Ryan, but his whole platoon."

Kaufman received some advice from Ryan's mom, Rebecca Wattles.

"She told me it's best not to send homemade chocolate chip cookies in the summer when it's 120 degrees in the shade," Kaufman said. "They'll all turn into one big blob. Of course, the guys would still eat them."

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