In midst of Iraq war, a soldier's selfless gift back home

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When someone you love is stationed in Iraq, you hold your breath whenever the doorbell rings or when a call comes late at night.

So when the phone rang the other day, shortly before Jay Leno's monologue, it was a relief to hear the voice of our daughter.

"I just got an e-mail from Roman!" Anne chirped. "It made me really happy, so I thought I'd call and share some good news with you."

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E-mails from her little brother, an infantry sergeant on a second tour of duty in Iraq with the 101st Airborne, have been rare this deployment. Roman and his men are far more likely to find insurgents, not Internet access, in their daily forays in the area known as "The Triangle of Death."

Even rarer than e-mail are the words "good news" in connection with the situation over there. Phrases like "civil war" and "Haditha investigation" have darkened hopes that this war will end well, if at all.

"Good news? All right! Tell me," I said to Anne, and settled in for what turned out to be one of the best stories this mom has ever heard.

A bit of a backstory first. Seven years ago, Anne was a high school senior looking ahead to college. At the beginning of that school year, she'd asked her dad and me if she could sign up for the post-graduation trip to Europe that her English teacher would be chaperoning. When we agreed to let Anne go, we didn't know then that spring would bring a letter of acceptance from Stanford University.

We're not poor – comfortably middle-class is more like it – but Stanford isn't cheap. With four years of Ivy League tuition looming, this European vacation was starting to look like a real extravagance. Anne begrudgingly agreed to put the funds she had saved for the trip from her part-time job toward tuition. The next day she asked her English teacher to take her name off the tour-group list.

A few evenings later, her teacher phoned to tell us that someone who knew Anne had approached him with an offer to fund her trip, no strings attached.

Turned out there was one small catch, and it came a short time later in the letter that accompanied the check.

"Many years ago," Anne's benefactor wrote, "a good friend of mine gave me a generous gift that made it possible for me to do something I could not afford on my own. She refused to let me pay her back, but instead challenged me to help someone in the future when I was in the position to do so. So this gift comes with 'strings attached.' I pass on to you the challenge to do something special for someone else some day."

Fast forward to 2006. With her Stanford degree in urban studies, Anne works as the development and communications manager at a nonprofit called BUILD (www.build.org). The purpose of the organization is to motivate high school students from under-resourced communities to start their own businesses. In the process, their Web site says, "they become interested in going to college, and they recognize the connection between higher education and a higher quality of life."

In the seven years it's been in existence, 100 percent of BUILD's students have been accepted at institutions of higher education.

College acceptance is one thing; paying for it, as Anne knows, quite another. In an e-mail to her dad, brother, and me, she told us about an idea she'd been working on lately:

"I have a request for you. If you were thinking of getting me a gift for my birthday (and you definitely don't have to!!! Honestly!), I would rather that you make a donation to the Glow First-Generation Scholarship Foundation. This fund was set up by a fellow mentor to help some of the students at BUILD who will be going to college next year but are having a tremendously difficult time paying for it, for a variety of reasons.

"I have decided to donate $1,000 to this fund (remember when I was given that trip to Europe my senior year and told I should give back some day? I think this is a great opportunity to do that)."

It was a moment worth everything. Anne's brother apparently thought so, too. The night she called us, she recapped Roman's answer to her e-mail. Sgt. Diaz, whose once-smooth face still bears the scars from the improvised explosive device that killed two of his comrades, whose paycheck is probably less than the assistant manager's of your favorite coffee house, and whose prized possession is a Chevy S10 pickup with more than 110,000 miles on it, said he wanted to match his sister's contribution to the fund.

"Put me down for $1,000," Roman told her.

Against the backdrop of today's gruesome headlines and investigations, the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, seem to blur more than ever.

But I believe the vast majority of our fighting men in Iraq today are decent human beings, doing an impossible job as best they can in circumstances worse than most of us can imagine. And even as they curse the heat and count the days till their tour is over, they want to know their sacrifices will have made a difference, if not in Baghdad or Basra, then in places back home.

In fact, I know one of those guys personally. And that soldier's mom hopes that now you do, too.

Sue Diaz is a freelance writer. She has written a series of articles for the Monitor about her son's military service.

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