Monday, January 29, 2001

A decade later, fallen hero not forgotten

Letters recall Gulf War soldier

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ryan Walriven and teacher Evelyn Banzhaf hold letters the third-grade class wrote to Marine Cpl. James Lumpkins 10 years ago.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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        The letters were dated Jan. 28, 1991 and never sent.

        Heather Morris drew a large heart on the bottom of her letter, then lanced an arrow through it. “Happy Valentine's Day,” she wrote.

        “My mom and dad are very sad for you,” Heather continued in a neat script from her third-grade class at New Richmond Elementary School. “My grandpa was in a war. You probably don't want to be over there. I wouldn't. ... We always pray for you.”

        Within three days of writing the letters, the third-grade students were told: Marine Cpl. James Lumpkins was dead.

        The 22-year-old soldier from New Richmond who had been deployed to Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm had been corresponding with the third-graders — 23 of them — and their teacher, Evelyn Banzhaf.

        He wrote of cold weather, said the country was a “giant sandbox,” wrote of finding candy in socks left out on Christmas Eve, of how he was getting better at riding camels in the desert. He signed his letters,


        Ten years ago today — Jan. 29, 1991 — Cpl. Lumpkins became the first Ohioan to be killed during Operation Desert Storm. His death came just 12 days after the United States and its allies began their push to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

by Kelly Rowland
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by Ryan Walriven
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by Heather Morris letter
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        “To us the war was orange ribbons,” said Ms. Morris, who today is 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. She was referring to Operation Orange Ribbon, a campaign begun by the late Ellen Lambing of Delhi Township to distribute pieces of orange fabric, which became a poignant symbol of support for the troops in the Gulf War.

        “We always had this naive perception that nobody would get hurt. We didn't realize what could happen.”

Heather Morris
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Ms. Banzhaf knew something was wrong on Jan. 31, 1991 when the principal told her that a marine chaplain had been seen driving the streets of tiny New Richmond that morning.

        “I knew right away,” she said.

        They are a decade older and no longer children. They are fresh men in college, they are working. They know now of the horror of war and the dark reality of death. They wrote to Cpl. Lumpkins because his sister, Sherry Davis, was a classmate and because their teacher, Ms. Banzhaf, had taught “Lumpy” in the first grade.

"Almost like a son'

        For a brief moment in their lives, 10 years ago, they made a connection with a young Marine thousands of miles away in a Saudi Arabian desert.

        James Lumpkins made them feel special. And then a small bridge to their lives collapsed.

        “We all felt the same way,” said Ms. Banzhaf. “It wasn't just Sherry's brother. We kind of felt like it was all of our brother. He was their brother, their soldier, their special person. Because I had been his teacher, he was almost like a son.”

        Melissa Oakes today is 18 and a freshman at Cincinnati Bible College in Price Hill. Ten years ago, she wrote in her letter never sent and wished Cpl. Lumpkins a Happy Valentine's Day. “You are a very brave man,” wrote the 8-year-old.

        “I never even heard of people dying before,” said Ms. Oakes today. “I'd never known anyone who died. Him being in danger never entered my mind. I thought because we were writing to him, he would be all right.”

A pal in the desert

        Ryan Walriven wrote and told Cpl. Lumpkins that he'd gotten straight A's and understood the Marine had been a good student as well. Today, Ryan is 18 and a freshman at Clermont College. He was taken with Cpl. Lumpkins' cordiality.

        “With him writing back it made me feel like he actually cared,” Mr. Walriven. “He wasn't too good to write back. Just talking to a soldier who was in a war made me feel like I was cool.”

        Ms. Banzhaf recognized that quality immediately 10 years ago.

        “I was thrilled because of the content of each one,” she said. “He had written each individual child as if that was the only letter he was writing. Just the charm, the heart-feltness. Just the fact that he took the time.”

        Kelly Rowland recalled how they all went to the playground after school 10 years ago and talked among themselves and with Ms. Banzhaf.

        “We didn't exactly know what was going on,” said Kelly, who is 18, lives in Cherry Grove and works at a day care center. “We didn't understand what war is about. But it was a war and it was bad.”

        Jenni Elam felt she had made a connection with history, as well as an individual.

        “I'd never been involved in anything that had to do with war, or with someone who was fighting,” she said. The 18-year-old lives in Georgetown and attends Clermont College. “We felt like we weren't really that important. We were third-graders. We'd love it if we got a letter back from him.”

        Ms. Banzhaf had not had a day like that before Jan. 31, 1991, or one since.

        “It was my toughest day as a teacher,” she said.

        Heather Morris said she and others didn't fully comprehend that American soldiers could get killed in the Persian Gulf.

        “We did not realize that people were going to die,” she said. “At that age, nobody in my family had died, nobody close to me. It made me realize that war is not an innocent thing. You don't have to be a bad guy to get killed.”


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