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All Politics Aside
By Elisabeth R. Finch

Dear Sgt. Joseph Callahan -- I don't know you, you don't know me. But, man, everyone knows Bob Dylan. Here are a couple photos of him. Get home safe.

Hi, Sgt. Callahan. I really don't know what a 16-year-old teenager could say that would interest a soldier fighting for our country...

Dear Joe - Rumor has it you look like my husband Steve, so I know you must be a hunkasaurus. Here's a Minnesota moose to make you smile.

Joe, I don't know you. But come home…

I was sitting in Film Analysis at USC, watching Bridge on the River Kwaii for the second time in a row, when I missed Joe's phone call. During a class break, the flat screen TV in the lobby blared CNN images of fatigue-clad troops marching in one direction. Off to Kuwait tomorrow, Joe said into my voice mail, and Iraq a few days after that. Goodbye, Elisabeth. Everything went silent.

The first words Joe had ever said to me were in a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall bar in Wichita, Kansas, after he had starred in the first play I ever wrote: "So, Elisabeth, what did you think?" I answered as all Jews from the East Coast do -- even when they're stuck in Kansas -- with another question. "What did you think?" Joe laughed. We ordered another drink. From that moment on, it was as if we'd lived next door to each other our whole lives -- one steady stream of questions hanging between us for too many hours, over too many pitchers of Hefeweizen.

Neither of us knew if we'd see each other again. But that first conversation never stopped.

This wasn't the beginning of a romance. There is nothing romantic about getting to know someone over five years through time zones and weekly instant messages. No romance in that day he told me he craved structure, purpose. And the Army was going to help him find it in Ft. Campbell, KY, where he trained in 100-degree heat and talked about grenades and the Mucus Chamber. And there was certainly nothing romantic about the day before he left for Iraq.

By then, writing letters wasn't new to us. Yet the moment the voice mail went dead, I went blank. I ran to the computer lab and printed a dozen stories from the Internet -- excerpts from The Onion, gossip blogs, Entertainment Weekly movie reviews, and TV Guide listings of shows he wouldn't be watching anytime soon. I threw them in an envelope with just my signature. I overnighted them to Callahan, Joe D., 101st Airborne Division. I was left to imagine they arrived before he left.

A month went by. For the first time in five years, there was a lull in the conversation.

But every time I sat down to write, I panicked. Everything I said sounded insipid and small. I flashed back to Mail Day at camp, and that pathetic loneliness when they called everyone else's name but mine, and I had stared at my plaid Chuck Taylors, kicking dirt, pretending I'd rather be doing just that than open a stupid letter from someone -- anyone. And, hell, if that stunk, imagine being in the Iraqi desert. I became consumed, obsessed with Joe getting something every single Mail Day.

An idea came to me. There were an infinite number of people my age just like me, working assistant jobs in Los Angeles, feeling utterly and completely ineffectual. And I knew a helluva lot of 'em. Joe was as lowly a grunt as we were. But in his world, that meant on any given day he was halfway around the world, armed with a fighting knife, throwing knife, bayonet, three hand grenades, a 17-pound anti-tank rocket launcher, and a rifle with 300 rounds of ammunition. Surely, if I could dream up a project that my friends could master while answering phones for malcontent industry moguls, they'd be game.

Friends... Turkey Day is over. ChristmaHanuKwanzaa is around the corner. And one of my closest friends, Joe, got on a plane last month to Iraq. This isn't a chain letter hoax. Write him. Tell him you know me, or pretend you know him. Get as creative as you want. All politics aside, it's a small thing that would make a BIG difference to a 22-year-old soldier as he spends the next year in a lonely/scary place. Here's his address. One stamp will do the trick…

I crossed my fingers that some friends would write or pass it on. I just hoped something would come of it for him.

And then the replies started flooding in.

Cool! Will do! And I'm sending it off to everyone I know!

My students need practice for Monday's vocab quiz, so I'll have them write, using their words. It'll be a great warm-up for today -- thanks!


Yes, absolutely, but can I flirt with him?

Three months went by: one phone call from his mother relaying he was still alive, a pencil-scrawled letter from a far corner in Tikrit, but mostly, still, silence for me. Joe's world, on the other hand, was getting pretty damn noisy.

Dear Joe, You don't know me at all, but I think that's what makes this letter extremely special...

Government aside, I decided to write you. I'm 16, from Colorado…

Sometimes I feel I can relate to a person based on their favorite part in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What's yours?

I always wanted to just write to a soldier saying thank you, but I never knew how or where to send my letters to...

Almost four months into Joe's tour in Iraq, an email finally arrived:

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