During World Wars I and II, the main form of communication between soldiers and families was putting ink to paper.
For six years, Operation Bugle Boy and Eco Water Systems have asked Jefferson City area students in grades three through 12 to write letters to a relative or a friend who served or is serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
The "I'm Writing You This Letter" activity helps students gain an understanding of veterans' sacrifice, OBB President Chris Jarboe said.
"We're trying to help young people to develop a greater sense of appreciation for the sacrifices that have been made on behalf of all of us," Jarboe said.
The organization hosts a number of activities and events to honor military veterans and first responders; however, the letter activity is the most important part of what OBB does, Jarboe said.
When students care about the past and form a true connection, it makes the wars and experiences real.
"Kids who have relatives who are veterans — they have a little bit of hero in them too," Jarboe, a former guidance counselor, said.
Students submit letters to OBB, and a committee reviews them. Reading the stories is touching, Jarboe added.
In the end, five contest winners are chosen and recognized during the Veterans Appreciation Night program.
This year, works from Payton Arras, Madisyn Merkle, Katie Roling, Madi Rissmiller and Baileigh Morris were selected out of 200 submitted letters.
The students received their plaques Thursday at the OBB event.
A donation of $100 in their name is given to Central Missouri Honor Flight — a program for U.S. military veterans to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C., free of charge.
Students also presented their letters to the recipient or family members.
Arras, a fourth-grader at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Jefferson City, wrote to her grandfather about his father. At age 17, her great-grandfather was a B-24 D bomber.
Sharing the details of his dad's service was emotional, said Gene Arras, Payton's grandfather. Many veterans don't talk about the deeper details of their service once they return, he added.
Many of the recipients were moved by their letters, the students said.
Morris, a junior at Calvary Lutheran High School, was inspired by pictures of her great-grandfather, Warren O. Lemp. In WWII and the Korean War, Lemp navigated bombing runs.
She learned about his service from her great-grandmother, who had the letter enlarged so she could read it and show it off.
"It was really moving to see how much she enjoyed reading the letters," Morris said.
Merkle, a sixth-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, started talking to her bus driver on the first day of school. Their talks led to her learning about his time as a soldier in Iraq in 2001.
His stories inspired her to be brave and never give up, she wrote.
A participant since the activity began, Roling, an eighth-grader at Immaculate Conception, has written to her grandfather, Don Hentges, each year. This year, her letter focused on his vivid memories of the Vietnam War, including the death of his best friend.
"I can't even begin to say how much I appreciate you and all the other Vietnam veterans," Roling wrote. "I only wish Willie were here so that I could tell him how much I appreciate him."
Rissmiller, a sophomore at Blair Oaks High School, admitted she was not aware of details about her great-grandfather Ellis-Lee Schoonover's service before beginning the activity.
As a pilot during WWII, Schoonover helped land a plane with engines failing on a mission with the Dam Yankee crew, Rissmiller wrote. At the end of his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the honorable Air Medal, the Presidential Unit Citation award and others.
"Although I never got the chance to meet you, I am truly proud to be able to call you family," Rissmiller wrote.
Writing the letter and talking to other family members about her great-grandfather will help her remember him, she said. It also provided a personal tie to Veterans Day.
That personal connection is what the committee looks for when selecting winners, said Janet Roling, OBB letters co-chair and advisory committee member.
The appreciation hopefully will inspire students to understand the benefit of living in a free country and "make tomorrow better by educating today's youth about veterans," Roling said.
The submissions are not possible without teachers encouraging students to write the letters, she added.
"Eco Water's support and the support of the educators in the schools — that's been our primary mechanism to get that word out and keep the program going," she said.