Carol Reynolds was watching the evening news in her Mahomet home when she saw a familiar name flash across the screen: Pfc. Lucas Starcevich.
She knew exactly how it was spelled and how it felt to form the letters with her pen.
For months, Reynolds had regularly written his name on an envelope and addressed it to him in Iraq. Inside, she'd carefully place a card covered with signatures of well-wishers from Mahomet.
Reynolds never met Pfc. Starcevich, never shook his hand or conversed with him.
But when she saw the news of his death that April day, she started sobbing.
"It was like I knew the guy personally," she said.
Reynolds has been sending such cards to troops in Iraq for the last year. She's been known to walk the cards around area businesses, asking people to sign and send their best wishes as well. Lately, she's left the cards at local businesses' counters so customers can sign them.
And plenty do. Signatures come from Mahomet citizens and even people passing through town.
"When the guys open the card, I didn't want just one signature," Reynolds said. "I wanted them to be overwhelmed."
Reynolds doesn't just send cards to Mahomet residents – she's added addresses supplied by local veterans' groups and even local military parents for their children's friends. That's how she got Pfc. Starcevich's name.
Even though they never met, the connection forged through the cards was real.
Pfc. Starcevich's mother, Ava Tomson of Tolono, discovered it after her son's funeral.
"We received his belongings from Iraq, and there were the cards he kept," Tomson said. "He kept them all."
That shows how important mail is to men and women serving in Iraq, Tomson said, and how crucial campaigns like Reynolds' are for soldiers' morale.
"They're in such a stressful situation," Tomson said. "They're away from their families, they're not at home, they're in the heat, they're in barracks, so mail and e-mail and packages and calls – the morale boost, the spirit lift – it helps them get through."
Sgt. Kendra Lee, a Mahomet resident, said via e-mail from Iraq that she's received about 10 cards from Reynolds. At first, Lee thought the cards were a mistake in the mail system. But when they kept coming, Lee realized the cards were for her. Now, they're a welcome diversion from the grim realities of war.
"It is always good to get mail here," said Lee, 23. "Besides people dying and mortar attacks, it is our only excitement – and a good one at that."
Reynolds remembers the importance of correspondence from the days when her husband, Curtis, served in the Vietnam War. That was before e-mail, and he sometimes couldn't send her letters for months.
Reynolds knew her husband was fighting in the jungle and needed all the support he could get. So she'd send letters and packages, just as a show of love and support.
"People don't realize when you're serving overseas, especially in a combat zone, the thing that you look forward to is mail call," Curtis Reynolds said. "The thing you look forward to is hearing from people. It kind of brings home to you."
And while a different war rages overseas, Carol Reynolds remembers what it feels like to be on the waiting side.
So she does the best thing she knows. She's not shy about asking strangers to sign the cards, and she's always on the lookout for new addresses.
Right now, she sends cards to 13 men and women; she believes they're all in Iraq, but she's not sure.
"I try to send (to) the ones I have on a regular basis so they have something to look forward to," she said.
If she finds out their birthdays, she'll send a birthday card and sometimes packages with small stuffed animals and other presents.
Reynolds doesn't mind the expense of supplying the cards and postage for the project. She sees it as her contribution to something larger, a chance for her entire community to reach out to those serving overseas and an encouragement for others to do the same.
"If everyone took a card and mailed it to someone, look at all the cards that could be sent," she said.
And she's even gotten responses from some soldiers – locally and even one from England.
Reynolds has published some responses as letters to the editor in the Mahomet Citizen, hoping to encourage support for those fighting in Iraq. And she believes Mahomet residents have gotten the message.
"It's like a flower garden," she said. "You plant a seed, and it's just blossomed. They've made it beautiful."