The country song’s name eluded Albert Bartholomew for a moment.
“My mom knows it by heart,” the young Army specialist said.
Then it came to him.
“Letters From Home,” the 21-year-old infantryman said, citing John Michael Montgomery’s moving 2003 hit about a soldier fighting overseas. “Oh, yeah. It fits almost perfectly.”
A folded American flag from his 101st Airborne unit tucked under his arm, Bartholomew stood outside King Middle School’s gymnasium Thursday, watching youngsters file through the door for an assembly.
An assembly for him.
Bartholomew had attended Johnson Middle when he was their age.
Yet King was a touchstone for the 2005 Southeast High grad, home for Christmas after his third combat tour, 15 months in Iraq.
His platoon flag was a heartfelt gift for the school.
“I’m grateful for what they do,” Bartholomew said.
He meant Manatee Operation Troop Support, a volunteer group started by King teacher Jim Comkowycz and wife Pat after their son, Jeff, was wounded in Iraq.
MOTS reaches out to our county’s soldiers serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, sending care packages filled by students and citizens.
“Everything they sent helped out in a great many ways,” Bartholomew said. “Guys’d get a package every two, three months. I’d get ’em once, twice a month.”
Snacks. Magazines. Newspaper comics. Toiletries. Letters.
Personal letters from first-graders and teens and motorcycle club members and Get Down Downtown regulars.
Even parents of veterans who fought in Iraq.
That meant a lot.
“They understand what’s going on, what real world things are actually out there,” Bartholomew said.
He was deployed 155 miles north of Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Summerall near Beiji, Iraq’s largest oil refinery and a major flashpoint.
“Firefights? We had a few,” he said.
But during a lull on patrol, Bartholomew would read letters and think of Bradenton.
“I’d keep them in my uniform pocket or my bag,” he said. “I’d pull one out and read it. Or read it over again. It would keep up my morale.”
The letter writers wanted to know Bartholomew as a person.
They wished him well.
“If I was missing home I’d read a letter telling me I’m going to make it and I’ll be home soon,” he said. “It helped me keep pushing on a daily basis.”
Like the words to the song:
“I fold it up and put it in my shirt
Pick up my gun and get back to work
And it keeps me drivin’ on
Waitin’ on, letters from home.”
Mannix About Manatee, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Please call Vin Mannix at 745-7055.