Pvt. Courtney Colley speaks to third graders at St. Germaine Catholic School Dec. 16.

Pvt. Courtney Colley speaks to third graders at St. Germaine Catholic School Dec. 16.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Bridging the distance with letters from home

Third graders become pen pals with former grad during boot camp

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 9, 2021

 Colley stands with her pen pals from Colleen Maciejewski’s third grade class.

Colley stands with her pen pals from Colleen Maciejewski’s third grade class.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 The class gave Colley a blessed medal of St. Christopher as a gift.

The class gave Colley a blessed medal of St. Christopher as a gift.

Photo by Deb Jacques


ST. CLAIR SHORES — Signing up for the military is an act of service, but it comes with an immediate sacrifice — having to leave home while having little contact with friends and family for a period of time during training and beyond.

But a short time after Pvt. Courtney Colley left for Army National Guard basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, a little piece of home was delivered in the form of letters and cards from a class of third graders at St. Germaine Catholic School, which she attended as a child.

“It made me feel almost like I was home,” Colley said of the correspondence from her pen pals. “Their cards were always so cute. I got to share them with my friends. Everybody was struggling a little, being away from home.”

Colley finished eighth grade at St. Germaine in 2016; she graduated from Lake Shore High School in 2020.

Third grade teacher Colleen Maciejewski said she got the idea to have her students become pen pals with someone in the military from a previous school where she worked. There, the principal had been in the Army reserves and had received letters from students when she was away. She recalled “how much those letters helped her,” Maciejewski said. “It’s something I always wanted to do.”

With Colley’s enlistment, she had a connection to a member of the military.

The students wrote to Colley about twice a month, sending holiday cards, letters of encouragement and pictures. They even held a prayer service for her safety. After corresponding all fall, the students were able to meet Colley when she arrived home from training in December.

Doing so meant they got to deliver Christmas cards to her in person and ask her questions about military service.

One student asked what inspired Colley to enlist in the Army National Guard.

“There are a few (members of the military) in my family,” Colley said. “I come from a family that is in professions to help people.”

She also explained that, although the third graders probably aren’t thinking about how much college costs since they are so young, that factored into her decision, too.

“There’s a lot of cool things they help you out with,” she said of the military. “I want to get into the medical field,” but college can be very expensive, she explained to them. “Doing the Army helps pay for it.

“I get to drive a really big truck. It’s pretty cool. It never gets boring.”

Kids being kids, they of course asked Colley about the food. She said it was OK and always included dessert.

Colley told the students that, just like they have to listen to Maciejewski, she had to listen to her Army training superiors carefully.

“When I was in training, that was a big thing. You had to be on your best behavior,” she said.

The students couldn’t believe how early she said she had to wake up each morning: 4 or 5 a.m., depending on the level of training. She explained to them how important it was that she and her fellow troops exercise and stay in top physical shape, adding that, “they make it fun and you’re doing it with your friends.”

“We did a lot of obstacle courses, (which are) like these really big playgrounds,” Colley said.

Maciejewski put the difficulties of basic training into terms third graders could understand, asking them if they ever had a “funny feeling in their stomach” when they went to a sleepover and wanted to go home. When some agreed, she told them, “Private Colley couldn’t go home. She had to stay because she made an oath, she made a promise.”

Colley told the third graders that’s why their letters and cards meant so much to her and her friends.

“These really, really helped, because anytime you get letters, even though you’re so far away from home (you know) there are still people supporting you from home,” she said.

Now, she said, she will take classes from Central Michigan University while participating in monthly training at the Army National Guard in Midland. She explained to the students the difference between the full-time Army and the National Guard, as well.

“We work with the state of Michigan and the whole country,” she said. “(During) COVID, they sent a lot of National Guard to help out.”

She also told the third graders she could be called upon to help in cases of floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters across the United States.

“The army helps not only in times of war ... they help in peace right here in our country,” Maciejewski said.

Some of the students said they really enjoyed writing to Colley and learning about what she was doing in the Army.

“I wanted her to keep getting safe,” said Owen Suchota.

He said he was surprised to learn how hard it was to be a soldier: “They did a bunch of pullups. They had to wake up really early.”

Lila Brandon hoped Colley would be able to stay safe and healthy.

“I thought that she was nice,” Brandon said. “I like that she was brave to go into the army.”

Colley said she hopes the third graders learned a little more about military service so they can keep it in mind as an opportunity for the future.

“We definitely are trying to inspire the younger generation to want to do something good for the country,” she said. “I was really glad I could see them (to) thank them in person, and I hope they will be inspired to, maybe, take a similar route.”

Colley attended basic training from July 27 to Oct. 7 at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and then completed her advanced individual training from Oct. 7 to Nov. 30 at the same base. Now that she has returned, Maciejewski said the students are going to continue corresponding with some of the friends Colley made who are staying full-time in the military.

“We take for granted that we’re always safe. There’s people who make us safe. They have to make a conscious decision to go into a field of service,” Maciejewski said, adding that she hopes her students have learned “to always be willing to help someone.”