With Mom's Help, Soldier Takes Hands-On Approach to Conflict
The reaction was immediate when Army 1st Sgt. Bruce L. Reges strode into the classroom in the Baghdad suburb of Baqubah, in the volatile Diyala province.
At 6-foot-5 and wearing full body armor, Reges, 57, looked fearsome to the schoolchildren. Outside, two Stryker armored vehicles blocked the street. A heavily armed security detail was checking out the roof and other classrooms.
Reges is assigned to an Army civil affairs unit out of Fort Bragg, N.C., working to reconstruct and support schools, irrigation projects and honey farms in Diyala. The team was visiting the school to assess what could be done to help, but the young students were terrified.
"Two of the girls started to cry and escape somehow, and the teacher had to calm them down and tell them that we were there to help them, not to hurt them," Reges recalled. "It was emotionally tough for me to see a child so traumatized by U.S. soldiers that they reacted that way."
That night in May, Reges sent an e-mail to his mother, Jean Reges Burn, at her home in Reston: Could she send him two small puppets that he could carry in the cargo pockets of his uniform?
"I thought, we need some way to let them know we are human, too -- fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers," Reges said. "So I thought two small puppets in my cargo pocket would be helpful in bridging the gap."
Burn quickly shipped a package of puppets to Iraq, including several German Steiff hand puppets she had in the house. "He's a big man, and when he has his armor on, he needs something to soften that appearance," Burn said.
The puppets had the desired effect on the children.
Reges soon sent another e-mail to his mother. "He wrote back and said, 'Mom, I need as many puppets as you can send, as quickly as possible,' " Burn said.
Thus was born Peace Through Puppets, a nonprofit organization operated by Burn and her friends that is dedicated to helping U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq communicate with children affected by the war by keeping them supplied with hand puppets.
Jean Burn, who is 80, was uniquely qualified to act on her son's request. "Long ago and far away, I was once a professional puppeteer," she said. In Colorado, she made marionettes and performed in a variety show.
After moving to the Washington area, she was a specialist in learning disabilities for 20 years with Fairfax County public high schools. She obtained grants to support her efforts to incorporate puppets into the curriculum. These days she is still a puppetmaker but has given up performing.