Military Pen Pal Leads to Life Long Friendship….an Ohio Connection
This article is written to share the very special friendship that happened by chance when a teacher assigned her students a project to support our troops in an unpopular war. The soldier’s wife recounts how the relationship unfolded.
Looking back, all you can say is: “Who would have thought it?” That is how a very special group of people defined the extraordinary friendship they developed that all started with one elementary teacher telling her students they could make a difference and one “Mail Call.”
During the Vietnam conflict, an eighth grade English teacher, Anna Margaret Ruland, from Coshocton, Ohio encouraged her class to write letters to soldiers who were stationed far away from home. Mrs. Ruland began forwarding those letters to a group of soldiers stationed in Vietnam by way of local military support organizations. That group of letters landed in the hands of the Army’s 1st Cavalry, B2 5 group stationed in the Vietnam county side.
While a number of soldiers received a letter from one of Mrs. Ruland’s students, only a sparce few replied and only ONE developed into a long-term friendship. It was 1967 and the whole idea of America’s involvement in Vietnam was not being well received back home. Anti-war protests were very commonplace, and the soldiers were well aware of it. A daily radio show, “The Adrian Cronauer Show” began each and every morning with the infamous sign-on: “Gooood Morning, V I E T N A A A M!!!!!!” and featured a very irreverent and non-conformist deejay who was very consistent in blasting out the old “sterile” environment on the air waves for some quick humor and a dig or two at the Brass in charge. The GI’s loved him. His show and the letters from home were the saving grace for the young men being forced to fight in an unpopular war. Being so unpopular, it was a challenge to write about what you were doing every day, knowing those very efforts would be interpreted as voluntary participation in that unpopular conflict….as if they had a choice!
That one soldier who found a way to write back time after time was Staff Sargent Donald E. Dershem. Mr. Dershem recalled walking past the mail processing area and was asked if he wanted a few kids in Ohio to write to. At first, he said no, because he had enough people to write to as it was. After walking about four or five steps, he turned around and said….”Okay, give me a couple.” The kids’ teacher, Mrs. Ruland, wrote an introductory letter to Dershem. In that letter, the teacher thanked him for writing to her students and also thanked him for serving his country. She was a “SCHOOL TEACHER” and an “English Teacher” of all people!!!” Dershem never considered himself the greatest student and thought of English as one of his worst subjects. What was he going to do now?, he recalled thinking. He knew his mother would expect him to send a reply. He recalled saying to himself: “But MOM, this is an ‘English teacher, I did mention that, didn’t I?” Dershem recalled writing her back and began by telling her that English was one of his weakest points, but if she would overlook all his mistakes, then he would continue writing the students. He laughed when he thought about the number of cards and letters the two shared over the 46 years they knew each other, “but bless her heart, she never graded any of my papers, and I’ll be dog gone she kept writing me,” he said.
While a crowd of soldiers would gather around the jeep for Mail Call, it was a regular occurrence that Sargent Dershem would be receiving not one but several letters from home. You see, Sargent Dershem joined the Army after losing his father when he was seven years old and his mother when he was 22 years old. He had one brother and truly thought he would not return from this conflict alive. While his parents were gone, he had garnered a wide swathe of emotional support from a number of family and friends who were also very committed to letter writing and the ‘as often as possible’ shipment of homemade cookies. So, if it was a bundle of letters or a box of homemade goodies, Sargent Dershem was always the envy of many longing eyes at Mail Call. He recalled telling other soldiers over and over, “Come on, people….. you have to write letters to get letters back!” He related that Anna Ruland, like a number of others, became a mother to him also. Even when writing became difficult for her in the later years, she never missed a birthday card or a holiday note. These messages were a priority.
Many of Sargent Dershem’s fellow soldiers would verify that pen and paper were always a part of Sargent Dershem’s gear. He could be seen almost anywhere writing another letter in response to one he had received. His reputation for writing Thank You notes was well known as well. The gratitude that poured from his pen only enticed the recipient to write more or get another care package ready for him. And so it began. The student pen pal, Helen Sayre, began to receive letters from far away, which she really never thought would happen. Her teacher, Mrs. Ruland, also began getting her own letters. As a teenager, the student maintained her communication with Dershem for over ten years. Sgt. Dershem kept the letters and his appreciation for that “home connection” while stationed so far away. Mrs. Ruland had become a much more consistent connection for Sgt. Dershem during his military assignment. Once Sgt. Dershem finished his Vietnam duty and returned, he continued to write Mrs. Ruland, sharing birthday cards and holiday letters for the next 46 years. Mr. Dershem’s letters and notes were always followed by a written response from the teacher, who had gone on to retire and move to Columbus to be closer to family. The annual holiday cards/letters and birthday cards continued to arrive for both of them year after year. She would complain about how her penmanship had suffered over the years, and he would compliment her on being able to read his writing at all. Mr. Dershem’s penmanship was a unique blend of what family and friends came to describe as “chicken scratch printing.” Nonetheless, the notes and cards continued and became a special event with each arrival.
During her time in Columbus, Mr. Dershem decided he would travel to meet this long term friend, Mrs. Ruland. He knew that it was time to really get to know this special person behind the pen. After nearly forty years of writing they finally met, and you could tell immediately there was a bond that had been solidified by those many years of paper and ink. Mr. Dershem began to visit Anna Ruland on a more regular basis, visiting several times a year, while maintaining their pen pal exchange as well. On several occasions, Mr. Dershem would ask about the one student who had written him the longest. Anna Ruland knew that the student had gotten married and moved from the Coshocton area. When Anna’s health required her to be placed in a nursing home, Mr. Dershem began to search more intently for the long-time student pen pal. Only now, he had a tool called the internet to help him find her. He was determined to find her now, too. Through FaceBook, he was able to find his student pen pal, who was now married and living in the Akron area.
Without much hesitation, the former soldier and the student pen pals agreed to meet in Columbus and visit the teacher who had started it all. They met in the parking lot of the nursing home on a cool spring Sunday afternoon and the two of them had a lot to share. There were marriages, children, and work careers that they began to explore. As they walked in to see Anna in her room, the three of them appeared almost overwhelmed with the moment they were all experiencing. Mrs. Ruland’s daughter, Susan, and Don’s wife just watched as they relived and re-energized their long-standing relationship, sharing lots of smiles and laughter. It was clearly evident just how much the relationship had meant to all of them.
As the teacher’s health continued to decline, the visits required the assistance of Anna’s daughter, Susan, to coordinate the best days and times. And the relationship continued for a couple of years with the meeting of these long term pen pals in the teacher’s nursing home.
The teacher passed away in July of 2013. Meanwhile, Mr. Dershem maintained his pen and paper relationship with the student and Mrs. Ruland’s daughter, Susan. Clearly, the friendship bonds and respect for each other were continuing on in the teacher’s honor.
In September of 2016, Mr. Dershem passed away after a long illness with ties to his time in Vietnam. And yet, the holiday cards and letters continue. The Face Book conections are there as well. Today, three women, who might not have had a reason to know each other, continue to write each other acknowledging a very important friendship that all started with a teacher asking a student to write a letter to a soldier they didn’t know who was far from home serving their country.
In an email to Anna Ruland’s daughter about one month after Anna’s passing, Dershem wrote: “Over your life time, God blesses you with some special people. I have been truly blessed and one of my special people was Anna Margaret Ruland. I hope she is still keeping an eye on me now, she knows I need it…..and I hope once again she doesn’t grade my paper!”