by Lauren Krupar

Reporter

Cuyahoga Falls -- The eyes of 13 students in the Riverfront YMCA's afternoon kindergarten enrichment class were fixed on the classroom door. The students waited as the knob turned, little American flags clenched in their hands, hoping their pen pal would be there.

He was.

When Army Specialist Eric Lancaster, 20, walked in the door, the room exploded with activity. They waved their American flags and sang "You're a Grand Old Flag" as a sea of red, white and blue greeted the paratrooper home on leave.

Their hero was back.

"Oh wow," Peggy Lancaster, the director of child care classes at the YMCA, said as she and her son entered the room decorated with cards, posters and streamers in red, white and blue. "I did not expect this."

Spc. Lancaster, a paratrooper in the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, and the students corresponded for months. On Tuesday, he and the students met.

"It's nice to see how much the kids care," Spc. Lancaster said. "The first time I got their letters, I was so surprised that it kind of choked me up."

Leslie Matheny, the kindergartners' teacher, began the pen pal project with both morning and afternoon classes after learning Lancaster was stationed in Iraq. The children sent him letters and packages and he e-mailed replies to his mother to read to the classes.

"I've never had a group of kids who were so involved like this," Peggy Lancaster said. "Every time I would come in and read his letters, they would tell me not to cry, but I still did. He's my baby."

Spc. Lancaster joined the Army when he was 17 and still in high school. A month after graduating in 2004, he was in basic training.

"When all my friends were out partying, I was training for my career," Spc. Lancaster said. "The beginning of my senior year, I had to figure out what I wanted to do -- go to college or join the military. Military runs in the family so I joined the Army."

Life in Iraq is "completely different" than here, Spc. Lancaster told the students. The roads and houses are made of dirt. Most homes do not have indoor plumbing or television.

"Kids' lives over there are really different," Spc. Lancaster said, "A lot of them don't have TV so they play a lot of soccer. They're pretty good at it."

The packages and letters he receives helps things feel more like home.

"Any packages I get, I share with my guys, just as they do with me," Spc. Lancaster said. "I think I have more candy and junk food now than I could ever want."

There also isn't any snow in Iraq or Fort Bragg, where he was stationed before being sent to Iraq.

"I haven't seen snow in two years," Spc. Lancaster said, looking out the classroom windows Tuesday as snow fell outside. "I lived here my whole life and I hated it, but now, I kind of miss it."

He also misses his friends and family -- the people he has been trying to catch up with while home on leave for less than a week.

Peggy Lancaster and her son spent a 10-hour drive from Georgia to Ohio talking to each other.

"We had a lot of time to spend together," Peggy Lancaster said. "It was nice."

Spc. Lancaster said he was spending his leave time talking with friends and visiting with family. Once he returns to Iraq Jan. 27, he will return to the long days -- waking up at 5 a.m. and going to sleep at midnight or 1 a.m.

"There's never a day off," Spc. Lancaster said. "It's like one long day, but it's really been a year."

He has at least five more months before he could be home for good. Spc. Lancaster's tour in Iraq will be over in June but could be extended another six months.

After leaving the Army, Lancaster said he plans to study to be in law enforcement. He ultimately wants to work as an undercover narcotics specialist.

E-mail: lkrupar@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-688-0088 ext. 3141