EL DORADO — Retired U.S. Army Maj. Dan Matthews finished with almost 28 years of service. It was by chance of looking down at a package from El Dorado, Kansas, addressed to “any serviceman” that he started a personal mission, one that he would see through to its end.
At age 37, the Missouri-native serving in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War walked into an abandoned officer’s club. It was September, and in the middle of the club was a dry fountain where packages and envelopes marked “any serviceman or soldier” were stored.
Janice Adams was a teacher at Oil Hill Elementary School at the time and had her fifth-grade class write letters to those stationed in Saudi Arabia with the hope of receiving a response.
“I happened to look down and see the one from Ms. Adam’s class and a guy had opened it up and had written across the top of it ‘I wrote to two or three of these kids,’” Matthews said. “I thought, ‘That is just not fair. I am going to make this right.’ That sort of became an obligation to me because I had started and let’s finish this thing.”
Matthews wrote more than a dozen individual letters to each of Adam’s remaining students telling about his Missouri hometown — “even smaller than El Dorado” he explained in a letter to Jessica — about his service time — “Dan, I’ve had plenty of training. I’ve been a soldier for 15 years,” he wrote to Danny — and about the foreign country he was in — “Partner, the last thing in the world I’d say is that I am having fun. It’s hot and there is a lot of work to be done,” he wrote to Mark.
But that is not where the letters ended. For one year, Matthews and the Oil Hill class kept in contact via letters.
“Dec. 14, 1990 — To Shilo: The stars are beautiful. I think that’s one really pleasant memory I’ll have of Saudi Arabia. I remember falling asleep while I laid there looking up at them. I could see shooting stars or meteors as they fell quite plainly.”
The class brought Matthews to tears upon receiving a Christmas package filled with books, a box of cookies and candy.
“Dec. 18, 1990 — Dear Gang, I must say Mrs. Adams that I had to shed a tear or two of my own. My little piles of junk seem to pale in comparison to the outpouring of selflessness I see in you and what you have done.”
And, finally —
“March 3, 1991 — Dear Gang, It’s over. Hallelujah, it’s over! No more SCUDS, no more air raid sirens, no more worry about gas attacks and no more war, it’s OVER! I’ve gotten more sleep in the past two days than I think I have in the last 45 or so.”
Matthews spent 13 months in Saudi Arabia, and not long after coming back to the U.S. he got to meet Adam’s class in person. In October 1991, Matthews was gifted with a book titled “Letters from Dan in Saudi Arabia,” a typed-out edition of all of his letters. He signed copies of it for each of the students, who were now sixth-graders.
“It was a big deal for them and it was a big deal for me,” Matthews said.
Matthews now lives in Lexington, Mo., not far from where he grew up, he said, and retired from active duty in 2003.