On the advice of a new-found friend, Sean Furilla practices the trumpet at least an hour every day.
The 13-year-old member of the Gaithersburg High School band barely knows Adnan A. Ramos but figures he should listen to him because Ramos is skilled enough to play the trumpet with the Marine Band -- and concerned enough to write from the sweltering Saudi Arabian desert.
Sean and Ramos are pen pals, an unlikely pairing of a Montgomery County teenager and a soldier-musician who has had to trade his trumpet for a rifle.
"I write to him as a regular friend," Sean said. "I sent him Kool-Aid and sports scores."
Throughout Maryland, students who know little of military life and even less about the politics of the Middle East are writing letters, sending packages and mailing crayon drawings to places with unfamiliar names. While their teachers hope they will learn more about life a world away, the students just hope to cheer someone up.
"I know he liked getting my letter because he wrote back right away," said Sean, one of about 70 band members corresponding with a Marine Band unit recently sent to the Persian Gulf from California's Camp Pendleton. "He said it was very hot and sometimes it was very boring."
At Glenwood Middle School in Howard County, reading teacher Diane Powers plans to have the 672 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades write to soldiers. And in Ellicott City, students at Dunloggin Middle School already have dropped their letters to American troops in the mail.
"I think you are very brave," wrote one first-grader at Hammond Elementary School in Columbia. There, the five first-grade teachers organized a card-writing campaign by their 115 students.
Last week, the students carefully crafted their greetings cards out of construction paper, drawing male and female soldiers on the front and using brown and green colors to illustrate their camouflage uniforms. Inside, teacher Katherine Orlando said they often wrote, "I love you."
Orlando said the children hear of Operation Desert Shield from their parents, magazines, newspapers and the elementary school mainstay, the "Weekly Reader."
But, she said, "They were excited about doing something themselves. And many said, 'I wonder if they'll write back?' "
While some teachers are using the letter-writing as an academic assignment, others, such as Gaithersburg's band instructor, William J. Hollin, simply are offering the option to interested students.
"Here are these musicians and they're crawling through sand and cactuses," said Hollin, who is in his third year of teaching at Gaithersburg. "The kids, I thought, would enjoy writing to them and get something out of it."
In Lanham, teachers and students at St. Matthias School feel a special connection with those drawn unexpectedly into the tension along the Saudi border. Former student William Liston is stationed with the Air Force in the sultanate of Oman.
Remembered by his teachers as "Billy," the 19-year-old has a cousin, Patricia Holland, in the eighth grade at St. Matthias.
When St. Matthias teacher Michelle Doran, who recalls Liston as "pretty typical, a real nice boy," heard that he had been sent to the Middle East, she helped organize an effort in which sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders worked with the school's youngest children to write letters to Liston. Although the letters and pictures (many of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) were mailed only to Liston, he apparently shared them with the soldiers in his tent. About a dozen soldiers have replied.
"They are grateful," Doran said. "They love hearing from the kids, so now we have students writing to all of them."
The students also have sent a package containing what they hope soldiers can use: a Nerf football, dried food, Kool-Aid, comics, crossword puzzles and sports articles because, Doran said, one child knew Liston likes hockey.
The children's letters are filled with questions. One writes, "How is Oman? What is Oman?" A sixth-grader wrote in big letters at the top of the page, "Sudden Hussein scares me." Another student asked her teacher, "What do you call people who live in Oman?" No one knew they are called Omanis.
The replies show the soldiers yearning to tell what they are going through. In one letter, in tiny writing, a soldier said, "I want to come home."