It was supposed to be a simple gift -- an art project by a kindergarten class for a soldier most of them had never met who was stationed in a country whose name the children could barely pronounce.
It ended up, as their teacher Carter Hughes said, taking on a life of its own.
"It's like ripples on a pond," Hughes said. "You do one thing and you don't know how it will touch other people."
The story of the project started last fall in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hughes, a kindergarten teacher at St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis, struggled along with her peers across the country with how to handle the attacks in the classroom.
What should she say to her students about the death and destruction, if anything? What could she and her class do to contribute to the country's healing?
"Parents wanted to protect them as much as possible," said Hughes, who has taught for 15 years. The children "did hear things about buildings in New York falling down, and you could sense they had some knowledge of it. But there was a real sense of them not being in control of anything, and they just wanted to do something about it."
Then Hughes remembered an episode of the television show "The West Wing" that featured a flag made up of children's handprints. As her students thought and thought about ways they could support the troops in Afghanistan, Hughes suggested that her class make a flag. The class responded enthusiastically.
Around the time that Hughes made her suggestion, St. Mary's School guidance counselor Barb Moulden sent an e-mail to the faculty concerning her husband, Billy, a sixth-grade science teacher at Samuel Ogle Elementary School in Bowie and a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves. A teacher since 1977, Moulden was called up to be a part of Operation Enduring Freedom after the attacks. In October 2001, he was sent to Afghanistan to help run the intelligence corps.
An e-mail from her husband in Afghanistan, in which he asked for her prayers for the job that he and his fellow intelligence experts faced, prompted Barb Moulden to ask her fellow educators at St. Mary's to keep her husband in their prayers.
"He was saying how smart the enemy is and how crafty and skilled they are," Moulden recalled. "He ended [the e-mail] with 'Please pray for me, pray for us all.' "
Moulden said she was frightened. Her husband, she said, has always been the strong, confident type. And, like her, he possesses a deep faith in God.
Yet, for the first time, she sensed fear in her husband through his e-mail, she said.
When Hughes learned of the e-mail, she thought again of the flag idea.
"I kind of got cold chills," Hughes said, remembering the day she learned of the Billy Moulden's correspondence to his wife. Hughes was convinced -- making a flag would be the perfect gesture to send to Moulden and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan.
So Hughes got a 4-by-6-foot piece of cloth and had her students dip their hands in red, white and blue paint to form the stars and stripes.
In the package that was sent overseas with the flag, Barb Moulden included a note to her husband about how the children had made the flag and offered a prayer for the soldiers as they pressed their hands onto the stiff cloth.
Sitting safely in his Annapolis house one recent day, Billy Moulden's voice quivers as he talks about the effect the flag and the note had on him and his fellow troops. He said he is grateful to be home in Washington where even the customary hot summers are nothing compared with the 125- to 130-degree days in Afghanistan.
Billy Moulden arrived home in June after an eight-month tour of duty. While he was away from his wife and two teenage children, he lived in a huge warehouse-like building with about 800 other soldiers. His own private quarters were only about 30 square feet.
The accommodations, he said, were not great. But the long days were made easier by the letters he received from Americans and the care packages with baked goods that he and the other soldiers received from family and friends.
"I got a lot of mail," Moulden said, adding that the letters and boxes made him feel as if he were home. "If a child wrote me from my community, I could picture them all."
And of course, Moulden said, the flag with its handprints of children from his hometown helped him to get through the long, work-filled days.
"Where I worked [in Afghanistan] was right next to the place where all the big decisions were made," said Moulden, 47, who had never been called up before as a reservist. "Usually two-star and three-star generals would go into those meetings and they would come out of there making dreadful decisions that were putting our people at risk. And this flag was in your face when you came out of those meetings."
To Moulden, the flag was a reminder of why the U.S. soldiers were in Afghanistan and a morale booster to the soldiers who frequently stopped to stare at it and reflect on their mission far from home.
The flag made such an impression on the military leaders in Afghanistan that one of them -- Army Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek -- sent a letter to Hughes thanking her and her class for their support.
While on a brief leave home last spring, Billy Moulden visited the students at St. Mary's who made the flag and thanked them for the gift. During that visit, he asked the children if they thought he should bring the flag home when he finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan or leave it there for his fellow soldiers to enjoy.
"I fully expected them to say bring it home," he said, adding that as a father and teacher he knows how young children feel about holding onto their possessions.
But the children surprised him by saying they wanted the flag to remain in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Billy Moulden is thinking about the possibility of more soldiers going back into the battlefield with the ongoing talk of a possible war with Iraq.
He believes he might not be called up this time because he just finished a tour. But there are no guarantees, he said.
"I know units in the military are mobilizing or are at least on different alert statuses," he said. "If the order comes down from the president, they're going to be ready to move."