Soldier surprises students who began writing letters to him in kindergarten while he was deployed in Iraq

Thirteen years after becoming pen pals with a group of kindergarten students in Georgia, a U.S. Army brigadier general surprised the now-high school seniors at their school in a heartwarming first in-person meeting.

Brigadier Gen. Vincent Buggs was on his second tour in Iraq when he began corresponding with the kindergarten students at David Emanuel Academy, a small Christian school located in Stillmore, Georgia.

Their correspondence was orchestrated through Buggs’ alma mater, he said.

Buggs, who graduated from Georgia Southern University, has remained active throughout the years with the alumni office. A woman who worked at the office had a young relative who attended David Emanuel Academy and heard that the kindergarten students were doing a gingerbread man project to learn about other cultures — and needed someone to take pictures with the character elsewhere in the world.

The students’ kindergarten teacher, Michelle Lamm, contacted then-Major Buggs to see if he would be interested in helping the class with the project.

“I started taking the gingerbread man and writing stories to the kids and sending them back to them, and then it kind of morphed because the kids started sending me stuff,” Buggs said. “And then over the years as I was traveling I would send them something, and then after a while we were just coordinating back and forth.”

Buggs had American flags flown in Iraq for each of the students, which he mailed to them along with certificates of authenticity. The kindergarten students posed for a photo with the flags in a local paper.

Over the years, Buggs and the students in the small class continued their correspondence with letters and treats.

“It was really heartwarming to me because I had this one relationship with this one class,” he explained.

Buggs, who now lives in Tampa, Florida, visited Georgia Southern University for military appreciation weekend and arranged to surprise the students at David Emanuel Academy on Friday — located about 30 minutes away.

Buggs said he was “more than nervous” to finally meet the students after years of snail mail.

“I had anxiety of how it would play out because you’re a stranger and they don’t realize the impact,” Buggs said.

Their meeting was shared in a series of photos on the school’s Facebook page. The caption pointed out that “small gestures of kindness really do impact in mighty ways.”

“In the end, we all started joking and laughing and talking about college and everything,” Buggs said, who has five daughters of his own. “We all started talking about life, and I just explained to them that sometimes the simple thing of kindness is very important and sometimes you don’t realize because you don’t see the effect of it, even if you’re 5 years old.”

Buggs, who has had a lengthy career with the military and has received several awards and decorations for his service, also stressed the importance of saying thank you in a message to those currently serving.

“I really, really suggest to service members that if you get an opportunity to personally face-to-face thank someone, take that opportunity,” he said. “It may change somebody’s life by going and saying thank you.”

This story was reported from Cincinnati.