Six thousand miles away from his Northeast Philadelphia home, Army Sgt. Glenn Devitt took comfort in letters, phone cards, and jars of peanut butter sent to him in the Iraqi desert by a group of schoolchildren.
Yesterday the soldier, home on leave, went to Forrest School to thank the students for their efforts.
"Myself and my guys, we loved your letters," Devitt, 23, told the children. "It brought a little bit of the States to Iraq."
In December, Paul Costello, president of Forrest's Home and School Association, heard from a friend who knew the Devitt family. Would the school consider helping support the soldier and his unit?
It didn't take long for administrators and teachers from the Holmesburg school to agree. None of them had met Devitt, a 2002 graduate of Frankford High who enlisted in the Army five days after graduation, but they wanted to aid a hometown boy.
"We had to help," said Jeff Winokur, assistant principal of the K-5 school, which has 850 students.
Students wrote letters and drew pictures. They collected DVDs and food that would ship well - seven huge boxes in all, so many that Devitt needed a car to haul everything back to his quarters. The peanut butter was the biggest hit.
"We could leave on a mission at any time, and peanut butter is a good source of protein and energy, so I'd just eat peanut butter and crackers as a meal," Devitt said.
Devitt arrived home early this month after six months in Iraq. He was met at the airport by his wife, Carmen; their 15-month-old son, Connor, and a phalanx of 25 people on motorcycles to escort him up I-95 to Wissinoming.
Tomorrow, he returns to Iraq for another 10-month tour. Devitt, who won an impact Bronze Star for bravery in battle in Sadr City, recently signed on to spend six more years in the Army.
When he walked into the auditorium yesterday morning, it was as if a movie star had entered. The crowd rose, waving flags, clapping and cheering for the baby-faced soldier.
Could the students think of an H word to describe Devitt, Winokur asked them?
"Army," one boy shouted.
"No, that's an A word," Winokur said.
"Hero!" someone else volunteered.
"We are here to honor a man who is giving himself to keep everyone safe," Winokur said.
On a visit to classrooms after the assembly, students presented Devitt with construction-paper flags and peppered him with questions about a faraway place they didn't quite understand.
Are the people nice?
"They're very nice," he said. "I interacted with a lot of kids your age. They're just like you. They like toys, and they like to play soccer."
Did anyone die?
"Yes, it does happen," Devitt said slowly. "It's war. But it's for a good cause, and when people sign up to be in it, they know they could die."
Do you shoot guns?
"I have two guns, and sometimes I shoot them," Devitt said.
Are you allowed to quit and come back home?
"No," Devitt said. "You sign up and you stay."
Second grader Brandon Gessner was excited to meet the man they had all worked hard to help.
"We were honoring him for serving our country," Brandon said.
His classmate Alyssa Callahan nodded.
"Our letters cheered him up when he was in Iraq," she said.
Devitt's father, Glenn Devitt Sr., stood to the side and watched his son stoop to pick up baby Connor.
"We're extremely proud of him, but it's a real-time war," Devitt Sr. said. "He'll tell us, 'I'm leaving for a mission, I love you guys, and I'll talk to you when I get back.' You watch the news and you worry."