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THERE is a sad irony to the Thanksgiving Day column about the discovery of Christmas messages sent 43 years ago to a young soldier serving during the Vietnam War and kept until his death in 2005.
The messages, along with a photo of members of the Richards Elementary School sixth-grade class taught by Roger Kohlmeyer, were found by relatives of the late Robert Wilcox. The family had not gone through all of the materials the former Columbus resident had left behind at the time of his death and came upon them earlier this year in a subsequent search.
The materials were in an envelope hand lettered with his military address and the return address for Richards. Each member of the class had signed a handmade card shaped in the form of a Christmas tree. There was also a two-page note addressed directly to the soldier.
It was written by Brenda Briest, the 11-year-old daughter of Robert and Darlene Briest. They had moved to Columbus in the late 1960s where he was an assistant manager at the J.C. Penney store.
In a way the note was pretty generic. Brenda talked about her likes and dislikes and reported on the weather back home to the 1959 Columbus High School graduate. She even recounted a couple of jokes.
Wilcox was one of three Vietnam service members from the Columbus area that Brenda had written. Each of her classmates wrote similar letters to other local military personnel.
“This was part of a project to write Christmas letters to local Vietnam troops,” recalled one of Brenda’s classmates, David Epperson, who still lives in Columbus. “It was initiated in the ‘Weekly Reader Senior’ student magazine that we got in school back then.”
In fact, the project by the Richards students got national attention. A photo of the students was run in a subsequent issue of the magazine.
Even though the grade school students didn’t know those to whom they were writing, their messages did have an effect.
David recalls he wrote to Vance Hege and Curtis Meyer for his assignment. “Curtis wrote back, and we corresponded a few times,” David said earlier this week. “When he returned, he looked me up and came to my house to visit and thank me. He brought some pictures he had taken in Vietnam and showed them to me and my family.”
The story about the Richards School project also served another purpose, bringing together once again members of Kohlmeyer’s sixth-grade class.
“As folks have been getting back from the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been getting messages from other classmates,” David wrote. “I’m friends on Facebook with Mark Clark (now living near Charlotte, N.C.) and Susan (Wheeler) Brimmer (now in Winter Haven, Fla.). Mark wrote me that he remembered the project and was impressed that Robert Wilcox had kept the letter from Brenda. To quote him, ‘a very cool story.’”
Sadly, Brenda never had the opportunity to know that her letter had meant so much to a soldier. In one of his emails, David enclosed a copy of an obituary that had been printed in an Ann Arbor, Mich., newspaper in early October.
Brenda Kay Briest Casher had died Oct. 7, just six weeks before the Thanksgiving column about her grade school letter to a soldier serving during the Vietnam War had appeared in The Republic.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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