On the advice of a newfound 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 since Ramos is skilled enough to play the trumpet with the Marine Band -- and concerned enough to write from a sweltering Saudi Arabian desert.

Sean and Ramos are newly committed pen pals, an unlikely pairing of a Montgomery County teenager and a soldier-musician who has had to forsake his trumpet for an M-16.

"I write to him as a regular friend," Sean said. "I sent him Kool-Aid and sports scores."

Throughout Maryland, children who know little about military life and even less about the political chaos 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, they 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 is making plans to have 672 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades write letters to soldiers as part of a reading class assignment. And in Ellicott City, students at Dunloggin Middle School have already dropped their letters to U.S. troops in the mail.

The Defense Department, noting that mail helps the soldiers' morale, says that troops can always use razors, soap, foot powder, sewing kits, small scissors and pocketknives and that they like receiving hard candy and gum.

In Lanham, teachers and students at St. Matthias School feel a special connection with those drawn unexpectedly into the tensions along the Kuwaiti and Saudi borders. Former student William Liston is with the Air Force in Oman, at the southeastern edge of Saudia Arabia. The 19-year-old, whose family lives in New Carrollton, was sent there in August.

Liston, remembered by his teachers as "Billy," has a cousin, Patricia Holland, who is in the eighth grade at St. Matthias, which is the focal point of a close-knit parish.

When St. Matthias teacher Michelle Doran -- who taught Liston and recalls him 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 helped the school's youngest children compose letters to Liston.

Although the letters and pictures (many of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) were mailed only to Liston, he apparently shared them with those in his tent. About a dozen soldiers have sent letters back. "They are grateful," Doran said. They love hearing from the kids, so now we have students writing to all of them."

While some teachers are using the letter-writing as an academic assignment, others, such as Gaithersburg's band instructor, William J. Hollin, consider the activity an option.

"Here are these musicians and they're crawling through sand and cactuses," said Hollin, in his third year at Gaithersburg. "The kids, I thought, would enjoy writing to them and get something out of it."

Hollin said he contacted the Marine Band unit in Washington and was referred to the field band at Camp Pendleton. He said he was told that his is the only school band and orchestra involved in such an exchange. He hopes that when the soldiers return, a joint concert can be arranged.

At St. Matthias, students sent a package containing what they believe the troops can use: a Nerf football, dried food, Kool-Aid, comics and crossword puzzles.

Doran said the older students understand only a little about the reasons the soldiers are in the Mideast, and "we told the younger ones that Billy is a man away from home and he's lonely."

The children's letters are filled with questions. One wrote, "How is Oman? What is Oman?"

A sixth-grader wrote, "Sudden {sic} Hussein scares me."

The replies show the soldiers yearn to describe, even to children, what they are going through, and the emotions aren't always complicated. On one letter, in small handwriting: "I want to come home."