April 18, 2014 at 4:10 PM ET
Natalie Roisman was up late doing work a few weeks ago when she received a surprising email. She recognized the name of the sender right away, even without the subject line: “Survivor of Desert Storm, but no Hero.”
It came from Shawn Stock, the soldier who had been her pen pal during the first Gulf War when she was a teenager in Delaware. They had lost touch soon after, though she always remembered reading about his experiences. And he always remembered her letters, as well.
“It’s been 23 years, but what you helped me through will never be forgotten,” his message read. “You'll never truly understand how much they helped.”
Roisman, now a 39-year-old communications attorney in Washington, D.C., said she was shocked that Stock took the time to find her. “I was just speechless,” she said, adding, “I was really touched by what he said. He had to go through a lot of trouble to find me — I’ve gotten married, changed my name. I’m at a totally different stage in my life. The fact that he did that just to say thank you — I was just completely overcome by that.”
Roisman is one of 29 wartime pen pals whom Stock is trying to locate and thank. Prompted by his daughter finding a “little black book” of addresses in an old box, he re-read many of the letters he had received from people in Idaho, Texas, California, Ohio and several other states.
“Many had asked me to write them when I returned home so they would know I was all right,” Stock, 48, told TODAY.com. “I had had a very hard time when I returned from Desert Storm, and I never had written to any of them. I felt I owed them some closure, and I started becoming curious on where and how their lives were now.”
‘Letters always gave me an escape’
Stock was married to his high school sweetheart when he joined the U.S. Army in 1987. After training as an indirect fireman — part of a mortar squad — he and his family spent about three and a half years in West Germany. He witnessed history in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.
A native of Excelsior Springs, Mo., near Kansas City, Stock transferred back to the States in April 1990 and trained at Fort Campbell, Ky., before being sent to help force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
“I remember the day we flew out, all the families were there, and I held my 8-week-old son and kissed him goodbye, not knowing if or when I would see him again,” he recalled. “I kissed my wife goodbye and hugged and kissed my other three boys. Then we boarded a plane and began our journey with a 20-hour flight.”
Stock's unit was stationed 145 miles from Baghdad, he said, “the only thing between that and the Iraqi forces in Kuwait.” His job was to compute coordinates and relay fire commands to two mortar squads.
“We did have a few calls and a few fires,” he recalled, “but who knew the ground war would only last 100 hours?”
His group remained for a few more months. Stock was writing with a few people — friends from home, some students of his cousin who had offered them extra credit points for each letter — when a fellow soldier wrote a letter to Seventeen magazine about soldiers who were not receiving mail. Within a few weeks an avalanche of responses flooded in — Roisman’s among them — and his correspondence with her and other pen pals was born.
“All the letters helped get our minds away from where we were or what we were doing,” Stock said. “There (were) good times and bad times there, but the letters always gave me an escape when I needed to.”
He remembers that Roisman’s first letter began with a humorous greeting: “Dear (blank).”
“She always wrote on personalized stationery with her name in bold across the top,” he recalled. “I always enjoyed her doodles and pictures that she drew on her letters with ‘Note: Crayola crayons — only the best for U.S. troops!’
“She liked the same music I liked and even named some of my favorite bands. She loved hockey and that is truly my favorite sport. She would talk to me about her parents, her sister, her dog Luc and school ... all in all, I just found in her a kindred spirit that I could write and share with.”
Roisman said she imagines her letters were a bit naïve. “I don’t know that I really grasped it or understood exactly what the sacrifice was,” she said of his service. “It was very hard to imagine what he was dealing with.”
But Stock said he did not think she was immature. “She did have an innocence about her that was refreshing,” he said, adding that while some people he wrote to never wrote back, she and the others who did “were all precious to my heart.”
The correspondences ended soon after Stock returned to the States to a life in disarray. He said his wife had taken their sons and moved with another man while he was overseas, though he is back in their lives today, as well as his two grandsons’. He remarried, had two daughters, and has worked for 22 years at an automotive service equipment company.
His recent address-book find has him using Facebook and Google to locate his old pen pals. He has tried to contact 15 people so far, though only three have responded. “But that is OK,” he said. “I was still able to thank them.”
Roisman was touched to learn the impact she had all those years ago. “To know that it meant something to him that I wrote these letters is really great,” she said.
One woman Stock found said she currently writes to a few soldiers in Afghanistan. “I told her to never stop writing ’cause she will never know exactly how much every one of the letters she sends helps.”
And he hopes to be able to thank the other 14 people on his list.
“Even though someone may not answer me back,” he said, “it has been an interesting journey so far and one that I hope goes on for a long time.”