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The traveling lunch bag: Created for soldiers as a child, airman finds it hanging at Walter Reed

Jul. 5, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Second Lt. Jennifer Szatkowski saw a bag on a bulletin board at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that she decorated for service members more than a decade ago while in grade school.
Second Lt. Jennifer Szatkowski saw a bag on a bulletin board at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that she decorated for service members more than a decade ago while in grade school. (Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Jennifer Szatkowski)
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At least a dozen years ago, a class of elementary school students in Butler, Wis., decorated paper lunch bags to send to soldiers.

One of the students was a conscientious girl named Jennifer Szatkowski, who went by Jenny but signed her full name with a tiny heart over the “i.”

On the top part of the bag she wrote an acrostic with the word soldiers: Strong, Outstanding, Loyal, Dedication, Intelligent, Enthusiasm, Respected and Strength.

At the bottom she drew an American flag. When she accidentally colored in one of the stars, she decided to make all of them dark blue. And when she ran out of space for all 50, she drew a bigger star outside the flag and wrote the number inside. Szatkowski didn’t want people to think she didn’t know better.

Once the project was finished, she forgot about it. Szatkowski grew up, applied to medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland and was accepted. Today, she is an Air Force second lieutenant in her second year of study. One recent Friday, after a hard week of testing, she went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to get her teeth cleaned.

Szatkowski sat down in the dental chair and looked at the wall in front of her. Two paper bags wrapped in plastic hung there. One seemed familiar. It was decorated with an acrostic and an American flag drawn in a child’s hand. “Jennifer” was scrawled beneath it, a tiny heart over the “i.”

“Man, that looks so familiar to me,” she thought. To the dental hygienist, Carmen Torres: “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m pretty sure I made that. How long have you had it?”

Torres remembered a Red Cross volunteer coming around with the candy-filled bags about five years ago. She’d gotten one for her dad, a military veteran, and two for decoration. They’d been on her bulletin board ever since.

Szatkowski asked for a closer look. Written in pencil on the bottom: “Jenny.”

She took a picture of her signature and showed it to her parents, who recognized it right away.

“Your handwriting hasn’t improved much from grade school,” her dad quipped.

It’s impossible to say just where the bag traveled for seven years before ending up at Walter Reed. The volunteers who handed them out aren’t at the hospital anymore.

Szatkowski figures nobody had the heart to throw it out.

“You can only speculate where it’s been. But it traveled at least 1,000 miles,” she said. “It’s just one of those cool, crazy coincidences.”

Torres offered the bag to her patient. Szatkowski thought it ought to stay put, where soldiers may still appreciate the innocent and heartfelt message she sent to them so long ago.

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