This story is about my brother-in-law, Duane T. Silvestri. I am relieved to say from the start that this account has a happy ending. Our family is fortunate in this regard: so many other American families have a different tale to tell.
Duane came back to us from Kuwait, An Nasiriyah, Ad Diwaniya, An Najaf, Karbala, Al Hillah and Baghdad--dusty, dangerous and deadly places all. While Duane was gone, his wife, Teri, gave birth to their son, Aiden. Duane's mother, Helen Silvestri, was with Teri when the baby was born. Everyone in the family waited for the day when our Marine would come home safely.
Someone else waited too, Jordan Waugh, a boy who had not even met Duane yet. The subsequent meeting of the boy and the man, and what brought them together, is detailed in a July 4, 2003 feature story, reprinted here with the permission of The Daily World.
The photographs were taken by staff photographer Kathy Quigg. I designed the picture frames--who better to guard this memory than my ole' gal-pals Betsy Ross and Lady Liberty?
"Lt. Col. Duane Silvestri meets Jordan Waugh, 12, of Taholah for the first time Thursday after the two exchanged letters while Silvestri was serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. Now home in New Castle, Washington, Silvestri arrived in Taholah for a two-day visit. Watching in back, are Jordan's mother Frieda Ralston and little brother, and two of his teachers, Lynn Lindblad and Jerry Walther." (Kathy Quigg)
"While showing Jordan Waugh the backpack he us in Iraq, Lt. Col. Duane Silvestri surprised Jordan by giving him the pack to keep. Silvestri, who kept Jordan's letter in the pack while serving in the war, also brought boxes of supplies and gifts for the Taholah School. Looking on are Taholah teacher Lyn Lindblad and Principal Rick Lindblad." (Kathy Quigg)
"A Letter from Home"
Publication Date: 7/4/03
By Kaitlin Manry, Daily World writer
TAHOLAH [Washington]— On Christmas Eve 2002, Lt. Col. Duane Silvestri wished he was home.
Instead, he was thousands of miles from his regular life. He was at Camp Virginia, Kuwait, exchanging makeshift gifts with five other marines, while his pregnant wife and 12-year-old daughter were opening presents in their New Castle home.
He missed them.
But 12-year-old Jordan Waugh didn’t know any of that when he sat down to write a letter to a soldier as part of his Taholah drug prevention class. His teacher, Jerry Walther, said a soldier in either Afghanistan or Kuwait would eventually read his letter — but he didn’t know who.
And he certainly didn’t realize that his letter would move a Marine so deeply that he would one day drive to Taholah to meet him.
All he knew was that it must be hard to be away from your family during Christmas. The legally blind sixth-grader wanted to give the soldier who opened his letter a gift. And so he wrote from his heart.
“Dear Soldier,” he wrote in the neatest handwriting he could muster.
“Hi. I’m going to talk a little about myself. I am 11 years old. I am kind of tall, and all ways wear a hat and sunglasses because I have bad eyes.
“I know you miss your family. I bet they miss you too. If I was out there I would miss my family too. I also know it’s hard out there in a desert or where ever you are.
“I sure hope this letter helps you in this time of season. I hope this is also some kind of present or something from me to you.
“I wish you the best and God bless you.
“Have a happy holiday.
“Please write back. From, Jordan.”
Jordan’s letter crossed the ocean and several continents before arriving in Silvestri’s hands on Christmas Eve. When he read the letter some time later, was touched. After reading the letter, Silvestri knew that he wanted to meet “this Jordan guy.”
So by the time he arrived in New Castle last Monday, plans were already under way to unite the compassionate Quinault Indian child with the 42-year-old U.S. Marine. By noon on Thursday, when Silvestri — along with his wife, daughter, newborn son and mother — arrived in Taholah, the entire town was waiting in excitement and anticipation.
“Welcome Duane Silvestri” was written in black letters on the school’s reader board. Teacher Lynn Lindblad, who arranged much of the visit, had made reservations for Silvestri and his family to stay at the Quinault Beach Resort in Ocean Shores, compliments of the school.
“I’m excited,” Jordan said on Wednesday, squirming around in his chair. “I’m going to ask him questions.”
Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared for the long drive to Taholah, Silvestri conceded that Jordan may be excited, but he swore that he was even more anxious to meet Jordan. He said he wanted Jordan to understand the motivation his letter provided him.
“It’s one thing to hear someone say something,” Silvestri said. “I think that’s meaningful if someone says, ‘thank you’ —like I did to him and he did to me. But it’s intangible. … I wanted him to know he impacted a real human being. He impacted me, who, of course, talked to my wife and told her … which of course impacted her mood, … which impacts her ability to coach my daughter and it also impacted my mood out there. And I can show people that letter. So he has to realize the magnitude of the people he touched because he wrote one little letter.”
When the two finally met on Thursday, Jordan said Silvestri “got all excited” and they shook hands.
“It was pretty cool,” Jordan said, noting that he was thinking about what Silvestri would be like and what he sounded like. “It was pretty much an honor.
“We talked about the war and what it was like and stuff like that,” Jordan added. “I asked him if it was scary out there.”
Jordan’s mom, Frieda Ralston, said Silvestri was “a really nice guy,” and “it was nice to finally meet him and put a face behind the name.”
While Ralston and Jordan’s dad, Donald Waugh, were overwhelmed and honored with Silvestri’s desire to meet their son, they’ve never doubted Jordan’s unique ability to impact people.
Gazing approvingly at her son, Ralston said, “In all actuality, it doesn’t surprise me that Jordan can touch someone all the way across the world. He’s a really special kid. With his achromatopsia (a vision disorder), he’s had to overcome a lot of things in his life.”
Jordan’s dad added, “The things he has to deal with and handle every day — he’s legally blind and with the way he lives every day, you wouldn’t know he has that condition. He’s a special kid.”
Throughout the years, Jordan has learned how to manage his eye condition and participate in the regular spectrum of kids’ activities. He wears sunglasses and a hat to protect his immensely sensitive eyes from the sun, and even had a special shield attached to a football helmet so he could join his friends on the field. He boxes, rides a four-wheeler and gets good grades in school.
One day, Jordan says he’d like to “find a specialist on eye condition diseases” who might be able to cure him. (His mom says it’s currently not possible). But Jordan also says that he doesn’t mind being legally blind.
“I think it’s better,” he said, smiling under the brim of a Duke University hat ( Jordan wants to go to school in North Carolina, “like Michael Jordan”). “It’s better to do things that other people don’t get to do. I get to wear my hat at school.”
Sitting in a Taholah classroom, her hands resting on a pile of letters servicemen and women sent her students, Lindblad said that Jordan, along with the rest of his classmates, has inspired and reminded her of the power of simple kindness.
“It’s kind of neat, how we as adults can kind of argue and complain and kids can touch so many hearts by just doing something simple, something we could do — writing a letter to someone fighting.”
When Silvestri finally got around to replying to Jordan’s letter, on April 28, 2003, he was at Baghdad International Airport as part of the American force occupying the facility.
He wrote, “Dear Jordan and Classmates from Taholah School. I have been carrying your letter since Christmas, but I have not opened it up until today. Please forgive me for not writing. It was great to finally open it and enjoy your kind words.
“Since it has been such a long time since you wrote, you probably have forgotten what you asked. So, I will remind you through my comments below.
“I am a US MARINE and have been in Kuwait since Nov. 22, 2001. I crossed into Iraq when the war began. So that you have a good memory aide from far away, I am sending you your letter back.
“Your letter was carried with me throughout my journeys in Kuwait. It has gone to An Nasiriyah, Ad Diwaniya, An Najaf, Karbala, Al Hillah and Baghdad. Perhaps you can ask your teacher if she will show you those places on the map.
Your letter has seen dust storms, driven in HMV’s and Bradleys. It has been nearby when many brave soldiers and marines were doing what they believe is the right thing in order to free people who can’t do the things that you do everyday. Your letter has been in my possession when freed Iraqi men, women and kids your age smiled, waved and gave ‘high-5’s.’
“Your letter gave Marines and soldiers like myself a reason to do what we were doing. I want you to know, that without even opening it until today, your letter told us that freedom is deserved of all people.
“So Jordan, thank you. Thanks to you and your classmates and your teacher for being there for us.
“By pure coincidence, I too am from WA. I live near Seattle. My wife delivered our first child on April 19, just a few days ago. In a few months I will see him and her. …Know that your classmates and your teacher kept people like me, my fellow Marines and the Army Soldiers with whom I served, motivated.
“I am sorry for such a long letter, but I have taken so long to respond. Many kind people have written me and I will respond to them this evening (IF I don’t get writer’s cramp!)
“Please ask your teacher if I may visit your class sometime. If it is OK, I might bring my son along and my wife so that you will know who you have touched in a very positive way.”
Now Jordan knows.