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'Savannah's Soldiers' send holiday cheer to military in Afghanistan

To bring holiday cheer to U.S. military missing their families while deployed in Afghanistan, an 11-year-old Florida girl has mobilized an army of her own.

Savannah Maddison Ogden of Weston, Fla., is the creator of “Savannah’s Soldiers,’’ a letter-writing campaign that has resulted in children sending an estimated 25,000 letters to soldiers serving in Afghanistan, including over 10,000 during this holiday season.

The campaign began a year ago with a simple gesture: Savannah wanted to cheer up good friend Wilson Schaper after his father, Lt. Col. William S. Clete Schaper, was deployed to Afghanistan in January. 

“I was kind of like, ‘Wow, what?’ I couldn’t imagine my parents going away for that long,’’ Savannah told NBC’s Kerry Sanders. “That would just crush me.’’

Savannah initially wrote a song for Wilson to cheer him up, but then decided to take it a big step further. She hoped to enlist enough other children to write letters to all 700 members that were deployed with Wilson’s father.

“I said, ‘Wilson, we need to do something more than this, is there anything we can do?'’’ she recalled. “We came up with ‘Savannah’s Soldiers.’’’

“I thought, ‘Oh how are we going to send 700 letters to Afghanistan?’’ Savannah’s mother, Monique Ogden, told NBC News. “She would get kids over, and they would start writing letters. It would be maybe 30-40 letters they would come up with in a week. I thought, ‘We’ve got a long way to go.'’’

To help achieve their goal, Ogden began speaking at local schools and Miami Marlins games. “The little kids write the cutest letters because they’re not the best spellers,’’ she said. “They’ll say ‘crunchy’ instead of ‘country.’ The kids really put their hearts into these letters.’’  

The missives began to pour in, and Ogden and her family sorted through them and then mailed them to Afghanistan.

“When you get a letter from a little kid that is telling you ‘good job’ and ‘thank you,’ you can’t explain it,’’ Capt. Bryan Durham, an engineer plans officer for the 841st Engineer Battalion, told NBC News.

“It helps them just get through the day and the tough situations that they’re dealing with in Afghanistan,’’ Janette Chandler, a support assistant with the U.S. Army’s Family Readiness Group, told NBC News.

The scores of children now writing letters enabled Savannah to far exceed her goal of cheering up the group deployed with Lt. Col. Schaper. Letter recipients now also include a naval unit and multiple army battalions, and many of them have posted their gratitude on Savannah’s Facebook page.

“The best is, they’re always smiling,’’ Savannah said. “They’re always holding up the letters with a smile on their face.’’

Two weeks ago, one of the regular recipients of the letters gave his family a special surprise: Wilson’s father made it home safely from Afghanistan for the holidays and thanked Savannah for all her hard work.

“Whenever Savannah’s letters boxes arrived, we would distribute them out,’’ Lt. Col. Schaper said. “Every time you were handing them out, there was always a huge smile, and a heartfelt thank you.’’

The letters helped Wilson feel close to his father while he was thousands of miles away before the two were reunited just in time for Christmas.

“It’s the best Christmas gift ever,’’ Wilson told NBC News.


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