Home on leave after spending the past several months fighting in Iraq, Army Spc. Ryan Bauman and Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Rocca were nervous about an assignment awaiting them back home: speaking to elementary school students.
But when they arrived at their respective schools, their jitters gave way to speechlessness, then gratitude as the children gave each a hero's welcome.
Bauman, 22, and Rocca, 20, both of Modesto, were "adopted" by students at elementary schools — Bauman by a fourth-grade class at Denair Elementary School and Rocca by second-graders at St. Stanislaus Parish School in Modesto.
Since the fall, when the two arrived in Iraq for tours of duty with their military units, the students have written them letters and sent care packages, which included everything from candy to share with Iraqi children to toiletries, socks, photos and crossword puzzle books.
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Bauman and Rocca are home for brief visits with their families. Rocca heads back to Iraq on May 12 and Bauman the next day — Mother's Day.
Although their time home is short, both wanted to meet with the students who've supported them and helped lift their spirits while overseas.
Bauman went to Patti Morrissey's class Wednesday. Rocca visited Ginny McGiff's class Thursday.
These are their stories.
Vicki Bauman's eyes welled with tears when asked how she felt about Patti Morrissey's class "adopting" her son Ryan.
"I was very honored," she said. "Our young people are sacrificing so much for us. This means a lot."
She accompanied her son to Denair Elementary School on Wednesday so he finally could meet the students who wrote and sent care packages since his arrival in Iraq in August.
Wearing a combat uniform and boots, Bauman — who is about halfway through a 15-month tour of duty — was greeted by students who serenaded him with "America the Beautiful."
Although it was the first time the children had seen their pen pal, his presence already filled the room. A picture of a uniformed, beret-wearing Bauman adorned a poster that reads "Ryan Bauman! Our Hero." A bumper sticker with the phrase "Are you Army strong?" was positioned underneath the soldier's smiling face.
After passing out Army book covers, wristbands and small U.S. flags to the students and eating chocolate cake with them, the blue-eyed, square-jawed Bauman thanked the students for the presents, pictures and letters they've sent.
He shared a few stories about life in Iraq, explaining that his job is to escort commanders and VIPs.
The students asked lots of questions. Many were benign.
"What's your favorite color?"
"Do you have a favorite basketball team?"
"What is your favorite Iraqi food and drink?"
But other questions touched on the dangers Bauman and others face daily.
"Do you worry about getting attacked at nighttime?"
"Do you have to keep a gun by your bed?"
"Have you ever been shot?"
"How many kills have you had?" He was straightforward in his answers, saying he'd never been shot and hadn't had to kill anyone.
Later, as the students gathered around Bauman for a group photo, Morrissey said she and the students have talked about how difficult life must be in a war zone.
"We hear about the scary things that happen and (the students) know the reality. They know that it is dangerous there."
Patrick Rocca didn't know what to expect when his plane landed in Modesto.
Although excited about coming home to visit family and friends he hadn't seen for more than half a year, he felt a little uncertain. While in Iraq, he had heard about people protesting the war by demonstrating at the funerals of fallen troops.
But when he emerged from the plane in his uniform and entered the terminal, the sight he saw left him speechless: 31 students, their teacher, parents and others all cheering as they waved flags and held banners welcoming him home.
"It's nice to come home to something like that," said Rocca, a soft-spoken Marine with closely cropped brown hair.
A month after he arrived in Iraq, Rocca learned that McGiff's class wanted to adopt him. McGiff, whose husband is a retired Navy man, wanted to find someone in the military whom her class could correspond with and offer support to. She heard about Rocca through school librarian Denise Bouchet. Bouchet's son and Rocca are good friends.
Days after his welcome at the airport, Rocca went to St. Stanislaus, his alma mater, to visit his pen pals.
The students, McGiff and Rocca assembled in the library for a lunch of pizza, milk and chocolate-chip cookies. Red, white and blue tablecloths adorned the tables. A banner that read, "Patrick we love you" adorned the wall. As they ate, the students took turns reading letters they wrote in honor of Rocca's return.
"Dear Patrick, I am glad that you came home safe," read one student. "Thank you for protecting us."
"It was such an honor to hold your banner when you got off the plane," read another. "I liked holding a big American flag for you."
Rocca told the students how much he enjoyed reading their letters and appreciated the presents they sent. He showed them pictures he took in Iraq. He told them that he shared with Iraqi children some of the candy they sent.
He even managed to squeeze in a game of kickball and a slide show of pictures he took while in Iraq.
A few students asked questions. One, a girl, asked, "Did you ever get hurt over there?"
"No," Rocca replied. "Because you all were praying for me."