ANDOVER — Halfway across the globe in Afghanistan in 2011, Marine Sgt. Joe Solberg said he always smiled when he would get letters from Kansas in the mail.
His pen pals, second-graders in Karen Perkins’ class at Sunflower Elementary School in Andover, would regularly send him care packages filled with letters and drawings.
“Anything you get over there puts a smile on your face,” Solberg said. “It’s fun to take them out and show them to the guys.”
Now that he’s back in the United States, Solberg visited Perkins’ class Thursday morning to meet and thank the children who had written to him, a near-stranger.
“I really appreciated you guys’ letters,” he told the students, as he pointed out where he was stationed on the world map. “It’s definitely good to be back.”
From January to June 2011, Solberg received manila envelopes from the students.
“You could tell they were just learning to write,” Solberg said. “They would draw pictures of what they wanted to be when they grow up, or write short sentences thanking me for what I was doing.”
His pen pals, now fourth-graders, filed into Perkins’ class on their first day back from Christmas break to meet the man whose picture hung on the wall during the majority of their second-grade year. After hearing and asking questions about his time in Afghanistan, not one student left without shaking Solberg’s hand.
Perkins said her class would not only write to Solberg, but would sit and pray for him as well.
“We just wanted to make the time pass a little quicker for him,” Perkins said. “It put more value into things we take for granted.”
Solberg, 25, and his wife, Sarah, live in Fargo, N.D., where he is currently stationed as a staff sergeant with the North Dakota Air National Guard. His wife is Perkins’ niece, which sparked the connection between the Solbergs and Perkins’ class.
Solberg enlisted in the Marines immediately following high school. He served in Washington, D.C., from 2007 to 2010 before being deployed to Afghanistan. During his 71/2-month deployment, Solberg trained Afghan soldiers.
Last October, he re-enlisted not with the Marines, but with the Air National Guard, so he can stay close to home, he said. He is currently studying emergency management at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
Solberg said he will remember the letters he received because they made him feel like he was part of a family.
“Over there we lose perspective of how thankful people over here are,” Solberg said. “I really appreciate it.”