Army Maj. Jim Sauer wrote to all 24 students in Pat Kodatt's fifth-grade class at Springwoods Elementary School in Prince William after getting letters from them in Saudi Arabia. He even included desert rations for everyone.

"It tasted terrible," Kodatt said.

At Springwoods, the students have a special reason for writing to American troops in the Middle East: Nearly 70 percent of the children come from military active-duty or reserve families.

Kodatt and several other teachers at the school have used the connection for both educational and humanitarian purposes, helping children hone their letter-writing skills while providing something from home for American troops overseas.

Recently, Kodatt's class videotaped its Thanksgiving Day play to send along with the next batch of letters.

All across the country, schoolchildren such as those at Springwoods are writing letters to troops in the Persian Gulf, according to relief organizations that ferry the mail to the Middle East. In Northern Virginia, where several large military installations and the Pentagon are located, the crisis has directly affected thousands of children who have a parent on Operation Desert Shield or who face that prospect.

In Prince William County, which contains half the Quantico Marine Base and lies close to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax, 12 percent of the students are from military families. In many schools in the eastern part of the county close to the bases, the percentage is far higher.

"This was an assignment of compassion," said Barbara Jackson, a Woodbridge High School English teacher whose students have written almost 180 letters to soldiers.

Students write to friends, relatives, former students, or soldiers whose names have been printed in local newspapers. The letters, teachers say, typically are full of questions about what life is like in the desert.

"What kind of TV do you get to watch?" asked a student at Saunders Middle School near Dumfries, where about 20 percent of the students come from military homes and where classrooms are turning out about 100 letters to troops each week. "Do you think it's pretty over there?"

"I wish you were here not Saudi Arabi," wrote another child, misspelling Arabia. "At least you won't freeze."

Along with the letters go packages, including everything from video walking tours of schools and communities to hand-decorated fans and other artwork, according to volunteers who have helped forward them.

Last week, Saunders held an assembly where students displayed on the football field a gulf-bound, 800-foot banner made up of sections from every classroom -- a tapestry of poems, cartoons and messages.

The military deployment has provided teachers not only with a reason for letter writing but with grist for discussions of Middle Eastern religion, politics, economics and history.

"It's a little more global awareness," said Lionel Seitzer, principal of Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, where third-graders in one class are writing to a teacher's former student in the gulf. "It's a tremendous learning experience; they see how everything is interrelated."

But there is fear among students as well. Latoya Williams, a sixth-grader at Woodbridge Middle School whose father, an Army captain from Fort Belvoir, is now in Saudi Arabia, has nightmares a couple of times a week "about them having wars and my dad getting killed and them coming over here and killing us," she said.

Much of the mail from area classrooms is passing through the hands of Prince William residents David and Jean Heard, who run Operation Something From Home. At first, they sent packages to two sons stationed in the region. Now, the group works out of a donated 20,000-square-foot Manassas warehouse, funneling letters and gifts from all over the nation.

Students from about 100 schools throughout the country have sent the organization 10,000 letters, about a third of them from the Washington area. The group just opened a San Diego office.

"I think America is saying we're going to support them," said David Heard, who works for Unisys Corp. "I don't think that says that everyone wants them over there, but we do know that they are our citizens -- our husbands, wives, sons and daughters -- and we're going to help them, try to make things a little more comfortable over there."

Sometimes the students get something in return for their letters. Students at Woodbridge Middle School got more than a little taste of Army life recently. They had a whole meal.

Centreville resident Bob Merchant, an Air Force reservist now in the gulf region, sent Elaine Pighini's sixth-grade class a box of rations.

"Let's reconstitute some fruit," Pighini said as the youngsters cheered at the prospect of eating what hundreds of thousands of troops in the Gulf hate.

"It looks like Styrofoam," said Latoya Williams, opening a package of dehydrated peaches. "I wouldn't be surprised if it tasted like Styrofoam."