by Roger Dean Kiser
"OK men, listen up! I want each of you to sit down this evening and write a letter home. I know that each of you will be telling your family how much you love the United States Army. Is that fully understood?" barked Sergeant O'Rouke, the leader of our squad.
"YES SIR!" thundered the entire platoon.
"DISMISSED!" he roared back. Soldiers ran in every direction heading back to their barracks. I was 15 years old and this was my third week of basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I generally stayed in the barracks at mail call. Why would I go running like a maniac when the mail arrived? I mean, I didn't have a family and I was very sure that the orphanage was not going to be sending me any good will wishes.
I would sit on my bunk, shine my boots and try to ignore the commotion when the other men would receive handfuls of mail and packages from home. It bothered me to see them eating cookies that their parents had sent them. But, there was nothing that I could do, so I just tried not to think about it much.
After showering I dressed and headed over to the PX. I got a coke and a package of cheese crackers and sat down at one of the small tables. As I started to get up from the table when Sergeant O'Rouke came walking in.
"What are you doing in here soldier?" screamed the Sergeant.
"I was drinking a Coke," I told him.
"Hit the deck and give me 25!" he ordered. I hit the floor and started counting out push-ups. "Why aren't you in the barracks writing to your family as I instructed?" he yelled.
"I don't have a family, sir," I said, continuing my push-ups.
"I don't give a rat's tail if you have a family or not. I told you to write home," he said.
"But I don't have a home, sir," I told him again.
"Then where the hell did you come here from, soldier?" he questioned.
"I came from the orphanage, sir," I said.
"You get your butt back over to the barracks, right now. You write a letter and you bring it to me!" he screamed out at me.
"But who do I write it too?" I asked. "I don't give a *&%^#%^ if you write to Santa Claus. You write a letter and you have it to me by 1800 hours."
"Yes sir!" I said, as I got up off the floor. I walked back to my barracks and borrowed a tablet and a pencil. I sat down on my bunk and wrote:
I took the letter over to the Orderly Room and asked to see the Sergeant. I was told he wasn't in and to place the letter on his desk. I placed the sealed envelope on the corner of his desk and returned to my barracks.
Nine o'clock was lights out and everyone went to bed. I thought about how hard life was in the Army. I said a prayer asking God to help me keep up with all the other men as we trained. Just as I was about to fall asleep the lights came on.
"Where is that little piece of crap?" growled Sergeant O'Rouke, as he walked between the bunks. I sat up in my bed and watched as the Sergeant stomped down the aisle and stopped at the foot of my bunk. The other men sat up but remained perfectly quiet. "What is this crap?" asked the Sergeant, shaking my letter as he spoke.
"It's the letter that you told me to write."
"Read this letter out loud," he instructed, throwing the letter on my bed. Slowly, I picked up the letter and began to read it. The entire barracks broke out in laughter and loud whistling. "SHUT UP!" yelled O'Rouke. The barracks quieted immediately. "You think I'm an idiot?" he asked.
"No sir, Sergeant O'Rouke, sir," I told him. The large man reached down, grabbed my foot-locker and turned it upside down. The contents spilled all over the floor. "But I only wrote what you told me to write," I reasoned.
"I told you to write home," he said.
"No sir, Sergeant. I told you that I had no family and you told me to write to Santa Claus. That's why I get no mail, 'cause I've got no home," I said. All the men in the barracks began to look at one another. One of the men began to laugh.
"Santa Claus?" he said as he laughed out loud. The stares from the rest of the men stopped his laughing. "Clean up this mess and report to me in the morning!" the Sergeant yelled. He left the barracks, turned out the light and left me to pack my foot-locker in the dark.
About a week later I was shocked to hear my name called out for mail call. "KISER! KISER! KISER!" yelled out the man, as he sat three packages aside. Over the next three weeks, I received seven more packages of cookies, and hard candy in the mail. I never knew who they came from. There was no return address on the packages. I could only guess that they came from some of the families of the men in my platoon. Maybe even from O'Rouke himself.
That night, after sharing the cookies and candy with all the other men, I laid in my bunk bed and smiled. At that moment in time, all I knew for sure was that the world was a wonderful place.