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A Class Act : Students Finally Get to Meet Their Gulf War Pen Pal


U.S. Army Sgt. Angela Hopkins had an emotional homecoming last week--with a family she had never met, in a place she had never been.

Four months after her return from the Persian Gulf War, the Tallahassee, Fla., native was welcomed by King Junior High School students and a teacher who, through cards and letters, became her adopted family during Operation Desert Storm.

During an emotional school assembly, Hopkins, 27, tearfully told seventh-grade history teacher Adria Schumann and her students how much their encouragement meant to her during her difficult days in the desert.

"I'm not a hero," said Hopkins, a member of the Army's 7th Transportation Group who was sent to the Persian Gulf on Aug. 19, 1990. "You guys are the heroes."

"I had some trying times," she said later. "At times, it was unbearable. But they were telling me how much they supported me, and it really made a difference."

Hopkins' correspondence with Schumann and the King students began with a letter written by Schumann's daughter, Mallory, 11, addressed "to any serviceman."

Mallory wrote the letter as part of a Girl Scout troop project several months before Operation Desert Shield developed into an open conflict. Hopkins, who had little to do to fill the tedium of off-duty hours in the desert of Saudi Arabia, immediately responded.

After that, letters flew back and forth across the globe from the Schumanns' mid-Wilshire home to Hopkins' barracks. In addition to letters from Mallory, Hopkins said she received five-page typewritten letters from Schumann at least twice a week.

Then Schumann had some of her seventh-grade students at King write to the sergeant. Hopkins, whose Gulf War assignment was to organize a system to deliver mail to the 9,000 soldiers in her transport group, said she responded to every letter as best she could.

"We had so much downtime; there was nothing to do but write," she said.

She also sent trinkets, Saudi coins and copies of the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, which Schumann used to help nearly 200 of her students study the region and the escalating conflict.

All Schumann's students, even those who did not write, were aware of the soldier called "Hop." Her name was placed on a "war wall," along with the names of other King students' friends and relatives stationed in the Persian Gulf.

Over the course of the correspondence, Hopkins said she came to consider Schumann "a second mother."

As the pressure mounted and the war drew nearer, Hopkins even called Schumann to express her fears about the war and her concern that when she finally came home her adopted 4-year-old son would not remember her.

"I started getting really scared, but I didn't want my mom to worry, so I divided the worry up," Hopkins said. "Mama Schu was like, 'You know, that's what I'm here for.' "

When she returned to the United States in August, Hopkins went home to Tallahassee and was reunited with her mother, her father, her brothers and her son. But, she said, "Something still wasn't there."

Eventually, she realized that for her homecoming to be complete, she needed to come to Los Angeles to meet and thank those who had helped sustain her during the war. Hopkins applied for a 10-day leave from the service and used her own money to fly to Los Angeles to visit the Schumanns.

On Dec. 18 Hopkins spent the day at King, where she was treated as a celebrity by students who sought her autograph and regaled her with questions about the war.

The sergeant was overcome with tears as she contrasted the children's welcome with the reception she received from military officials.

"When we came home, we did receive a welcome, but it was very staged. It was a welcome with a lot of planned speeches and a lot of politics from adults," she said. "To come here and see this, kids that are supposed to be from rough, tough Los Angeles, to see them do this for me is really awesome."

Hopkins, who said she joined the military to escape pressure to join a gang, also appealed to the children to live in harmony with their neighbors to prevent future wars.

"Peace starts with you guys," Hopkins said. "Learn to respect one another. Learn to respect all religions. No one is right and no one is wrong."

Many of the students were surprised by Hopkins' visible displays of emotion during the course of the day.

"I imagined she would be really tall, really tough, really strong and buff," said Steven Tam, 13, who received a Saudi coin and a letter from Hopkins last year. "But she was tender and kind and caring."

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