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Spc. Diego Barros shows Columbine Elementary third-graders where he was stationed in Iraq. Times-Call/Erin McCracken
Soldier, a hero to kids, seeks citizenship

LONGMONT — When Spc. Diego Barros was a little kid, he preferred the History Channel to Nickelodeon. He watched old war movies instead of cartoons.

“He always wanted to be a soldier,” said his mother, Siria Rector, a special education teacher at Columbine Elementary School.

On Friday, the 22-year-old soldier came to Columbine to meet the students who wrote letters and sent care packages during Barros’ tour of duty in Iraq.

Teacher Wendy Durst headed the writing campaign last year when she was teaching fourth-graders. She continued it this year when she switched to teaching third-graders.

About 40 students were on hand to meet the soldier they had been writing to all year.

Durst said she wanted to show her colleague that the school cared about her and her son.

“Siria is a friend of mine, and my dad is retired from the military,” Durst said. “He would go to sea for three months at a time, and so I know how important it is to receive mail when someone is so far away.”

Barros, a 2000 graduate of Campion Academy in Loveland, joined the Army three years ago. He had been stationed in Germany before heading to Iraq in late April 2002. He will return to Iraq in December 2005.

The students greeted Barros with applause and waved small American flags. He said the children’s letters gave him great joy during his tour of duty.

“I’m not used to getting mail from kids, but their questions were really cute, and I would pass them around to everyone to read,” he said.

“It’s nice to get anything in the mail. It was the highlight of my day.”

In their letters, which Barros brought with him, the students asked important questions, such as “Where do you go the bathroom during a war?” and “Did you lose all of your baby teeth?”

In person, their questions were no less curious.

“Do you speak Germany?” asked third-grader Jessica Perez.

“No, I don’t, but I do know some words,” Barros answered.

The students asked Barros questions about the Iraqi people and culture (“They have Subway, too,” he told them), the tank he drove, the uniform he was wearing and “why are the people on TV trying to tear down a statue.”

Fifth-grader Jerome Melson IV said he was glad to write to Barros.

“I wanted to thank him for helping to keep our country safe,” he said.

Rector said the letters were comforting to both her and her son.

“I would get so worrisome,” she said, “but I think (the letters) let him know that people were thinking of him, and it helped to get his mind away from what was happening.”

Later, Barros said of the Columbine students: “I hope they understand how fortunate they are. Especially in Iraq, the children have so little, and it’s so sad. I know they’re too young to realize it, but these children have possibilities and a future.”

As for Barros’ future, he said he would like to become a high school history teacher. And this week, he will fly to Washington, D.C., to interview to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Born in Brazil, Barros came to the United States with his mother when he was 9. After obtaining his green card, he was able to join the military. Now, he is one step away from U.S. citizenship. But, he said, “To me, I am an American already.”

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 274, or by e-mail at msidwell@times-call.com.