17 years after serving in Iraq, veteran hopes to find students who wrote letters of encouragement

Mark Bland looks through the correspondence he received while deployed to Iraq.

Through moves, marriage and other changes during nearly two decades of life, Mark Bland has held onto a precious collection of 50 letters that were sent to him by U.S. students during his one-year deployment to Iraq. The letters were an inspiration to him during some of his darkest moments in life.

A native of West Virginia, Bland joined the Army Reserves at 19, motivated by the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was thinking I would go to college but I ended up going to war,” said Bland.

After the initial invasion in Iraq, Bland and other service personnel began to receive correspondence from students in the United States.

“It was troop fan mail. A student would write an anonymous letter and it would be handed out to someone in the military. I received about 50 letters from children from places in Ohio, New Jersey, West Virginia and Texas during that time,” he explained.

When his family recently was quarantined due to COVID-19, Bland dusted off the letters and began writing responses on a Facebook page he created called “P.S. Thank You.”

“During the initial invasion, I didn’t have a lot of spare time as we moved throughout the night and pulled security in the day. We did this type of movement for 21 straight days. I was exhausted. I lived outside for about two months until we found an old abandoned building and occupied that. Living inside was great because it did shelter us from the sandstorms,” he explained in one response to a student named Zachary Jones.

According to Bland, he contacted Bluebonnet News after noticing some of the other articles posted and seeing the high number of Facebook followers. He hopes Bluebonnet News’ followers will share his story and help him reconnect with more of the students, like Kelsey C. and Noen Tran from Miller Elementary School in Richardson, Texas. All of the students who wrote to him would be in their 20s now.

“I just started this project a week ago and I have already found some of the students from Ohio and West Virginia, and two from Corpus Christi, Texas. I am looking for about 40 more people. I think some of them are still around and I believe it’s possible to find them,” he said.

To follow Bland’s mission on Facebook and to read the letters of the children who wrote to him, click here: https://www.facebook.com/PS-Thank-You-101642411832734.

Bland promises to update Bluebonnet News readers if he is successful in finding the students from Texas.

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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