In the valentine he made for his father at war, Brian Wright went to the heart of his feelings: "Happy Valentine's Day," the 10-year-old wrote. "I hope you come back soon. I hope you don't get hert!"
Once a week, Brian and 25 other students at Barden Elementary School on the Fort Belvoir Army Base meet to talk about their absent loved ones, the adjustments they're making at home, and the fear and worry that now shapes their lives. For a few weeks, the group has been busy making valentines to send to dads, moms and other relatives serving in the war zone.
In their cards, the reigning sentiment is not "Be mine," but "Come home soon."
Jason Barnes, 11, who previously viewed the holiday in terms of chocolate candy, thought his dad, Jimmy, might need some entertaining. So he drew a comic military heart with wings and a slaphappy expression alongside a self-portrait of Jason greeting his father -- in person, finally safe after a wartime tour. Jimmy Barnes, an Army medic, has been gone since September.
Jason's sister, Cathy, who is 10, took a truthful approach with her creation. "Here's a hug, Dad, cause you're the best," she wrote above a picture of a strolling heart, then added cryptically, "Sorry that I've been so bad, but I'm a kid. What do you expect?"
The students in guidance counselor Francine Lotson's group are children of military families. They are accustomed to a parent's long forced absences. But war is a new experience for them.
"They're handling it quite well. They're coping," said Lotson, who organized the support group last fall. "But these are the children mainly of ground troops and we don't know what to expect. For now, they're still receiving letters and calls from Dad. I'm always so happy for them when they've heard something. They love to bring in the things Dad has sent -- pictures, candy wrappers with Arabic writing, foreign money."
Both of Jimmie Carr's parents have been deployed to the Persian Gulf. In August, he and his baby sister, Micha, were uprooted from their Tennessee home and brought to live with their godmother in Northern Virginia. A quiet sort, Jimmie says he is proud of his parents and can handle the hardship. "They're the good guys," the 11-year-old said.
Julie Lopez, 10, misses her brother, Thomas. He is 19 and he used to take her "cruising around" with him. They had the best times together. "My mom cries all the time," Julie said.
And for Shintrelle Hudley, 11, the war has meant the loss of "both my Dads" -- her father and her stepfather. The valentines that Shintrelle made for them were signed, "Your dearest daughter."
Making the cards brought out the painstaking artist -- and the lonesome child -- in each student. Many children admitted they had usually thought of Valentine's Day as their holiday, a day to receive surprises from their parents instead of giving them. But they jumped into the project, creating pop-up hearts, thinking up funny or inspirational messages, agonizing over their penmanship.
"They were so sweet and so honest," Lotson said. "And they worked so diligently, with real care. They didn't just throw them together."
With his card, Josh Lane included the continuing tic-tac-toe game that he and his father, Michael, a staff sergeant, are playing long distance. "I made up a tic-tac-toe board and I'd send him an X and he'd send back an O," said Josh, 12. "One more move and I'll have him two ways."
Other students included Bible verses, bracing mottos, funny hearts with goofy faces. But James Dormer's poem probably summed up the tension of Valentine's Day, 1991:
"Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
This valentine poem
Is written for you.
My heart's filled with love,
My thoughts are of you.
I can't wait till
This whole thing is through."
Staff writer Jene Stonesifer contributed to this report.