WOONSOCKET — Tracy Caisse doesn’t even remember writing the letter.
After all, it was in the third grade. Her teacher at the former East Woonsocket Elementary School had told her to write a letter to a soldier in the Gulf War as a class assignment.
When the phone rang two weeks ago, Caisse didn’t recognize the caller’s name or voice. He said his name was Robert Diaz and he wanted to thank her for not forgetting him while he was digging bunkers and dodging Scud missiles in Saudi Arabia.
After 21 years, the ex-Marine had answered the letter Caisse wrote to him when she was eight years old.
“I didn’t know what to say,” she says. “I was caught off guard.”
Diaz did a four-year hitch in the Marines and was deployed from December 1990 to May 1991, a period that spanned Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and the Persian Gulf War. He was positioned a few miles south of the Kuwait border with Bulk Fuel Company, whose mission was to maintain and supply aircraft with fuel.
Now he lives in Warwick, he’s married with a son, and he drives FedEx rigs for a living. He’s been laid up with a neck injury for over a month.
“I had some time on my hands,” said Diaz, now 43. “I’m not used to that. I was going through some boxes in my basement. I kept all my letters and memorabilia from Saudi Arabia. I came across a few letters and one of them was hers. I read it. It kind of struck me in an odd way. It kind of just hit me.”
Neatly penned in a child’s wobbly longhand on lined paper, the letter was attached to Tracy’s photograph, a smiling girl in a white blouse who looked like she might be posing for a school photograph.
“I go to East Woonsocket School,” it says. “My teacher’s name is Mrs. Vaillancourt. In gym, we’re playing Tarzan. We have a swing on a rope and fall across a mat. I have 7 pets, 2 cats, 1 dog, 2 hamsters and 2 rabbits. ... Are you married?”
The last line says, “Please write back as soon as you can.” It was signed, with her name before she was married, “Your friend, Tracy Campbell.”
The memories of those times came rushing back to Diaz when he read the letter. “It was touching,” he says. “I always felt bad that I didn’t write back to her.”
He had a few letters like that, and he tried tracking down everyone who had written them to thank them for not forgetting a soldier. But the only person he had any luck reaching was Caisse.
IT WASN’T luck, really, but the mere fact that, even after 21 years, some things don’t change. Diaz knew he was looking for someone named Campbell who lived in Woonsocket. Armed with the power of internet search engines, he managed to find Caisse’s parents, Terry and Wayne Campbell, still living at the Woodhaven Road home where she grew up.
It was Caisse’s mother who got the call.
She remembers Diaz trying to explain, “This is going to sound kind of funny, but it’s a good thing. ... If you don’t have a daughter named Tracy it’s not really worth me telling you. ...’’
Now Terry was really curious, and Diaz proceeded to tell her the story of the forgotten war letter.
Terry said Diaz suggested that she simply convey his thanks to his daughter on his behalf, but she wouldn’t allow it. She gave him her daughter’s phone number and told him to call her himself. She would be thrilled.
She was — but the thrill-factor took a few moments to work its way through the shock.
After a relatively brief and cordial conversation with Diaz, she went home and thought about what had happened. A graduate of Woonsocket High School, Caisse is married now and lives with her husband in Connecticut, where she works as an architect.
She was at work when she took the surprise call from Diaz on Dec. 8.
“I felt bad because I didn’t say much,” said Caisse.
But she still had Diaz’s phone number.
She called him back and made arrangements to rendezvous in Rhode Island when she visited her family a few days later.
“I was so excited that they really wanted to meet me,” says Diaz.
They all met at Diaz’s house, where he told her about his role in the nation’s first taste of war in the Mideast. For Caisse and her parents, his story was as close as they’ve come to understanding the horrific violence, emotional and physical, that war visits upon the lives of soldiers.
As everyone knows, the Gulf War was just the beginning of America’s quagmire in the Middle East. After the relatively brief mission of chasing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait was over, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center brought American troops back to the region, this time for a bloody and protracted war in which more than 4,400 American troops and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed. And that’s not counting the front in Afghanistan that’s still dragging on.
After a decade, the last convoy of American troops rolled out of Iraq on Sunday, a few days after President Obama declared an end to the American occupation with a succinct “Welcome home.”
Back in the early 90s, says Diaz, it was a different kind of war.
“It was an air war,” he says. “I spent half the time I was there building bunkers to hide from Scud missiles.”
Above all, says Diaz, it was terrifying. Every moment he spent there was a moment he dreamed of the day he could come back home.
And every letter he got from someone like a little girl named Tracy Campbell in the third grade at East Woonsocket Middle School was a precious connection to the place he longed to be.
For that, he says, he remains ever grateful.
“I, for one, am thankful our guys are coming home now,” he says. “I was there, I always thought of coming home. It was always on my mind. To be away from home as long as they were, I just couldn’t imagine what that’s like.”