CLEARWATER, FLA. — It started as a school assignment.
Six-year-old Jannah Lynn was supposed to exchange letters with a soldier in Iraq. But her mom didn't want the name of any random soldier. So Carol Medvec went to New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, where she attended services, and asked for a soldier's name from its pen pal program.
She was given Army Reserve Sgt. Jim Schultz.
"Dear Sgt. Schultz. Hi. You are in Iraq. I want to thank you. You are brave," Jannah Lynn wrote in November 2006.
"Dear Jannah Lynn, Thank you for writing me. Being a soldier you have to be brave, you have to be strong, there's time you have to leave your family, but there's time you get to come back," he wrote, and included postcards with pictures of Iraq that she could take to class for show and tell.
So began a correspondence with Jannah Lynn that would soon grow to include her four siblings and eventually their mother. And suddenly this soldier was not just serving his country; he was saving a family.
Thousands of miles away in Iraq, the walls around Schultz's bunk beds were empty. His buddies had pictures of their wives and children, but 46-year-old Schultz was long divorced with children in their 20s too old to color pictures.
When he returned home from his first tour of duty in 2004, he sat on his duffel bag at the airport and watched the reunions until he was the last one in the parking lot. Then he walked to a nearby hotel and checked in for a few weeks before renting a small, one-bedroom apartment in New Wilmington, Pa.
After his shifts as a forklift operator at a cheese plant, he returned to a sparse apartment, watched TV on an air mattress and ate fast food and frozen dinners with his cat, Rascal, close by.
He tried dating, but "Lord knows what you are going to get out of a bar scene."
There were plenty of women who loved flirting with a soldier, but Schultz couldn't find a "kick-back woman" he could listen to country music with.
Not far from the cheese plant at the Medvec home, Carol and the kids were trying to adjust to life without a father. Carol, 42, divorced her husband in 2004, the same year Schultz returned from his first tour of duty.
Lonely nights. Lonely lives. Only a mile apart.
A phone connection
Back in Iraq for the second time, Schultz, a mechanic stationed about 180 miles north of Baghdad, ran recovery missions for the National Guard, fixing trucks and bringing them back to base when they took a hit.
He'd gotten plenty of letters from kids like 9-year-old Randy from California and 9-year-old Kelly in Michigan. He tried to write them back, but sometimes he'd be away from base for days, often with little sleep.
He always found a way to write to the Medvec kids. Soon, their short letter exchanges turned into longer e-mails and phone calls. He asked whether they would send him soup. They talked about school and their friends.
He and Luke, then 17, were both Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Shawna, 20, told him all about her boyfriend problems and girl drama. Caroline, 9, wanted to know about his guns. Blaine, 16 and a straight-A student, talked about being in the drum line.
And Little Mouse, as Schultz liked to call Jannah Lynn because "she sounded just so cute and so tiny," told him how much she missed him.
"He wasn't trying to be my dad; he was trying to be a father figure and friend," Shawna said. "I felt comfortable talking to him."
For the first time in a while, Schultz wasn't as lonely. He looked forward to the children's calls and didn't mind walking a mile to the call center.
One day Carol answered one of his calls.
He sounds like Jack Nicholson, she thought.
At first, they talked mostly about the kids. Sometimes he knew more than she did.
"Do you really know where Luke is going tonight?" he asked once.
He's worrying about my kids while he's in Iraq. What kind of man does that?
Later, they realized Schultz had worked at the cheese plant a mile from her home. They went to the same high school and spent most of their lives in tiny New Wilmington, with a population of about 2,500.
Soon they were spending three or four hours at a time on the phone, splitting the roughly $400 monthly phone bill.
"I really felt like I knew him forever," she said.
He called her before every mission. He could hear her crying when they hung up.
"She was like a little schoolgirl," her eldest, Shawna, said. "If I would go to use the phone, she would be like, 'Don't use it, Jim's gonna call me.' "
Unlike the veteran Army wives and girlfriends, Carol knew little of a soldier's life. She wanted to know if he had a swimming pool in Iraq and what time he got off work.
Once when she hadn't heard from him in five days, she frantically called the Red Cross demanding that he call home. They told her to call back when she hadn't heard from him in five months.