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Pupils' letters garner Marine's gratitude

At the end of a hot, miserable day in the sands of Iraq, Cpl. Russell Dzelak looked forward to the mail he would receive at the end of the day. He admits he had it better than most. Almost daily, something would arrive from home.

At the end of a hot, miserable day in the sands of Iraq, Cpl. Russell Dzelak looked forward to the mail he would receive at the end of the day. He admits he had it better than most. Almost daily, something would arrive from home.

That wasn't the case for all Marines in his platoon, he said Thursday morning at his childhood alma mater, Cooper Elementary School.

Dzelak made a trip back to the school -- the first in about nine years -- to thank the second and third grade students in Dawn Theelke's class, who wrote letters to 21-year-old while he served in Iraq.

A motor vehicle operator with the COB6 TS Co. 3rd Platoon, Dzelak returned stateside in September and came home this month on leave.

Before returning to Camp Lejeune this weekend, he wanted to thank some of the students who supported him and his fellow Marines during his first tour of duty in Iraq.

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Babbette Dzelak, Russell's mother, said she found a book of letters from another teacher, complete with photographs of the class, among the things her son sent home.

The support from students helped, Russell Dzelak said.

"Most days were hot, miserable," he said. "At the end of the day, we would get our mail. I know some people that didn't get any mail at all, some got one or two ... a month. I think I got (mail) about one a day."

He said when the first package arrived from Cooper students, he sat down, read the kids' letters and passed them around for the whole platoon to read.

"We all sat there and smiled," Dzelak remembers. More than 20 students in Theelke's class sent letters to the platoon in Iraq last year, he said.

"We all read them," Dzelak told students during a 30-minute question and answer session. "It made us all feel a lot better that day."

This weekend, Dzelak heads back to Camp Lejeune, where he'll transfer to a medical battalion and train to be an ambulance driver before returning to Iraq in February.

"I know he's going to see some awful things doing that," said his grandmother, Esther Dalbec.

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Whatever may lay ahead, one thing was certain after students had the chance to meet Dzelak face-to-face Thursday and ask him dozens of questions about life in the Marines, life in Iraq and all his favorite things: The kids want to continue their letter-writing efforts.

"Our supporters are the biggest thing that keeps us going over there," Dzelak said.

Contact Shelley Nelson at snelson@superiortelegram.com or (715) 395-5022.

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