Jan. 26, 2010

Virginia Soldier gets warm reception at Connecticut school during visit

By Capt. Matt Nowak
Virginia Army Guard Public Affairs

NORTH CANAAN, Conn. — Spc. Kyle Harris from the Virginia National Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion paid a visit to North Canaan Elementary School in North Canaan, Connecticut, Dec. 18, 2009, to meet a class of schoolchildren he corresponded with during his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

  Spc. Kyle Harris visits schoolchildren in Connecticut.

Spc. Kyle Harris hugs Ashley DeMazza's second graders as he arrives at North Canaan Elementary School in North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 18, 2009. The second graders corresponded with Harris during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. Harris gave each student a certificate to make each second grader his "battle buddy." The school held an assembly to honor Harris and presented him with a good citizenship award from the school's principal Rosemary Kielty and a key to the town from First Selectman Douglas Humes and an honorary diploma from Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain. (Photos courtesy Spc. Kyle Harris, 276th Engineer Battalion) 

While deployed, Harris was contacted by second grade teacher Ashley DeMazza through anysoldier.com and began corresponding with her class. DeMazza chose Harris because he asked for items for female Soldiers and other male Soldiers first rather than for himself.

“They had to coax me into saying what I wanted,” Harris said. “It took me a while to tell them my favorite thing is chocolate covered pretzels. Since I told them that, I’ve gotten more than I could eat so I ended up giving some away.”

Harris became a popular figure within the school's students and faculty. He became known as “Soldier Kyle” because the second graders thought saying Specialist Harris was too long.

As the second graders would wait to hear from Harris, students behaved well as part of a deal they made. Harris told the class to be good or else he wouldn’t check in as often. The students listened to their teacher and were well disciplined while waiting for Harris to check in.

Halfway through the deployment, Harris decided to ask DeMazza if he could visit when he returned. But while he was sending the email, he received an email from DeMazza asking the same thing. Harris had to do a double take because he thought he sent the email incorrectly.

The 276th Engineer Battalion returned from Afghanistan in November and Harris set the visit to the school in December. Spc. Leslie Wertz, who deployed with Harris to Afghanistan, made the nine-hour trip to northwestern Connecticut just before a major storm hit the entire East Coast.

Harris thought he would be meeting just the students he corresponded with, who are now third graders. But he was surprised with an all-school assembly in honor of him that included many parents and local community leaders.

During the ceremony, he was presented with a good citizenship award from the school's principal Rosemary Kielty, a key to the town from First Selectman Douglas Humes, and an honorary diploma from Superintendent Patricia Chamberlain.

During the ceremony, a shy student read a poem that was written by a collaboration of students that put “Soldier Kyle’s” experiences together into words.

After the ceremony, Harris met with every class individually. He showed each class photos of his experiences and answered questions.

At the end of the day, Harris was treated to a pizza party and a cake with his name on it. He presented each of the original second graders with a certificate to say they are officially his “battle buddy.”

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