Children write letters to thank military

CRAIG COUNTY – It was the first time in the 42 years since he served in the United States Army in Vietnam that anybody had thanked Eddie Gaines for what he did.

And when the thanks came, it was from 9-year-old Craig County girl Katlyn Caldwell. Her act brought tears to his eyes, said Gaines, who is 64.

Katlyn Caldwell of New Castle gives Vietnam veteran Eddie Gaines a letter she wrote as part of fourth-grade class projects at McCleary Elementary School. Katlyn met Gaines on Veterans Day at Country Cookin. Photo by Meg Hibbert

“They greeted me back when I came home from Vietnam, but they never did thank me for what I did,” said Gaines, who was an E5 crew chief on fixed wing aircraft in 1969-70 in the Army in Chu Lai. The air base is about 56 miles from Da Nang.

Gaines is a retired machine operator who lives in Covington and keeps an apartment near the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center so he can get to medical care and therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He met Katlyn and her family on Veterans Day observed, Nov. 12, while eating at Country Cookin on Melrose Avenue in Roanoke.

Katlyn was one of the fourth graders in Karen Jones’ class at McCleary Elementary. All the fourth graders wrote letters of appreciation to veterans, which were presented at a Veterans Dinner on Veterans Day at JC’s Depot in New Castle, Jones said. “We have several students whose parents and grandparents are veterans, and the kids were excited,” Jones added.

In addition, the entire school’s student body wrote cards to active military people to express appreciation for their service and on Nov. 16, shipped them out to School Nurse Trena Boudreaux’s son, Ethan, who is serving in Afghanistan.

But Katlyn wanted to give a letter to a veteran in person, she said. And so, when she was eating with her grandparents, Becky and Melvin Hutchinson of New Castle and other relatives, she gave her letter to Gaines.

A waitress had told her that Gaines was a veteran who was at Country Cookin for the free meal offered to veterans on Veterans Day.

The letter touched Gaines so much that he said he planned to take it home to Covington to show it to his family over there. “Then I couldn’t find it,” he said, when meeting with The New Castle Record on Nov. 15. “I had put it in my truck. I’m going to hang onto it this time,” he added.

Gaines was 18 when he was drafted nine days out of high school, he recalled, and sent to Fort Bragg. Three days after he got to Vietnam, “a grenade went off in the classroom and killed three officers and wounded 28 people,” he remembered. During his service, he came close to being wounded but wasn’t actually hit.

“I did a lot of flying over there in Vietnam when they didn’t have two pilots, and they made the crew chief go along,” he added.

After the war he worked in a shipyard on the ship, the Nimitz, in Norfolk, before coming back to this area to work for Hercules. He retired in 2000.

The letter written by Katlyn, who is the daughter of Jodi Caldwell of New Castle, says:

“Dear Veteran,

I thank you for what you do. I am proud of you. I like what you do. I wanted you to recognize that I am thankful for you. My uncle Micah was in the Army. He has now passed, and is in a lot of my memories. You are doing something very good. I just wanted to write a letter to a veteran to thank them. Thanks for serving our country. Sincerely, Katlyn Caldwell. P.S. I will support and salute our soldiers from the past, present and future.”