Iraq vet Brian Owens received a 'Flat Stanley' from a third-grader in 2004 and carried it for 10 years. (Michael Chow / The Arizona Republic)
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PHOENIX — “People don’t write letters anymore,” according to third-grade teacher Luella Wood.
But 10 years ago, in the painstaking scrawl of an 8-year-old, Alan Orduna did.
The Huntsville, Ark., boy, along with other students in Wood’s class, penned a note to accompany a paper cut-out modeled after the title character in the popular children’s book “Flat Stanley.” After being smashed by a bulletin board in his sleep, the book’s protagonist makes the most of his new 2-D state by mailing himself to friends.
Wood asked her students to send their Stanley cut-outs to relatives or friends, who would then take them on a journey and detail the characters’ exploits in a letter back.
Alan didn’t have a friend in mind — or at least not one who would take Stanley on an adventure worthy of a third-grader’s imagination. So, Wood sent Alan’s packet off to an Army unit stationed in Baghdad and asked Alan to wait.
Alan did wait, patiently, through the rest of the school year.
He waited through the rest of elementary school.
He waited so long that he forgot he was waiting.
Then, shortly before Veterans Day last year,the 17-year-old high-school senior was called into the library with the rest of his class.
“There were a lot of people surrounding the library, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ “ he said. “They called me over and said, ‘Some soldier sent mail for you.’ “
Stanley was home.
The journey begins
Brian Owens was young when the military bug bit him.
“My grandfather served in World War II. My father was a chaplain with the state Guard,” said the New Mexico native, now a Phoenix resident. “As a kid, I had grown up in camouflage and wore dog tags and had buzz cuts.”
Owens didn’t consider a career until college, though.
“I was struggling with my grades. I loved education and I loved learning, but I just couldn’t make heads or tails of what I wanted to do with myself,” he said. “I needed some direction.”
At 20, he enlisted in the Army.
He was 24, with two small sons of his own, when Stanley emerged from a box at mail call in the spring of 2004.
Owens was immediately on board, folding Stanley up and tucking him safely into his wallet.
“I’d always been a fan of cool little projects like that, and I imagined my own kids taking part in something similar,” he said. “I could just picture them kind of starry-eyed after getting a letter back, thinking ‘Oh, wow! A soldier overseas carried this, and he went here and there and did this and that.’
“I thought, ‘I can be that guy for this kid.’”
Stanley built an impressive military resume.
He helped carry out dozens of combat patrols through Baghdad. He held steady through firefights and mortar attacks.
He saw car bombs, the banks of the Tigris River and the palace of Uday Hussein, the eldest son of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
He was there on the day of Iraq’s first democratic elections.
He was there when Owens, standing guard on a tower, dodged a sniper’s bullet by about 6 inches, and when his patrol hit an improvised explosive device. He saw the fate of some colleagues who weren’t so lucky.
He was there, still, when the disturbing scenes and constant stress began to wear Owens down, leaving the soldier angry and confused.
“I experienced many things that changed who I was, how I thought and who my loved ones remembered me being,” Owens wrote in a narrative travel log that eventually accompanied Stanley on his trip back to Arkansas.
“I lost track of a lot of things, including the silent passenger ... folded up in my back pocket.”
Upon returning to Silver City, N.M., after his deployment, Owens found himself ill-equipped to deal with a key civilian responsibility: being a dad.
His marriage didn’t survive his time in the Middle East, and he’d gotten custody of the boys.
“In the Army, if you didn’t know how to do something, you referenced the field manual, or ‘FM,’” Owens wrote. “(There) isn’t an FM to reference on how to be a single dad, so I was lost.”
He and the boys lived in a tiny apartment that was chilly in the winter and “hot and full of critters” in the summer, subsisting on macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and scrambled eggs. Owens said he was impatient and asked too much of his kids.
“I was trying to support us, and the logistics of trying to make everything click was extremely hard,” he said.
Owens found a job at an open-pit copper mine, “an 8-year-old boy’s dream come true.” He got a chance to operate some of the largest equipment in the world and assist with blasts in the mine.
The constant activity eventually wore out Owens’ wallet. As he sifted through its contents, he came upon a colored piece of tightly folded paper.
“After I found Stanley again and realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I still have this thing,’ it kind of took on a different, deeper meaning,” Owens said. “It was almost like I had a mission I hadn’t completed yet.”
Stanley’s return address was long gone, but Owens couldn’t bring himself to throw him away.
“You read about all these fantastic coincidences, and I thought ... ‘Maybe, one of these days, that’ll happen to me,’” he said. “It was never a question: I was going to keep it until I died, or until I could find a way to get it back to who it belonged to.”
With Stanley in his pocket, Owens soon met the woman who would become his sons’ stepmother.
She brought with her a needed reality check.
Owens’ love for his boys had kept him going in Iraq, but between the long days at work and late nights with his band, he’d lost sight of how much the three needed each other.
About the same time, officials at Owens’ job approached him, complimenting his performance at a morning safety meeting and his “keen eye for hazard awareness.” Laughing, he corrected them, calling it “a keen preference for being alive.”
They asked him to begin assisting with field audits and safety training, critical in an industry with huge equipment, acid lakes and explosions.
The work “felt right and satisfied a passion I had felt for a long time,” Owens wrote. In 2008, he officially became a health and safety specialist.
His improved financial standing — plus the income of his new fiancee, an environmental consultant at the mine — allowed Owens to move the family to a larger house.
But three months later, the economy tanked, taking the price of copper with it.
The mine closed, and so did Owens’ window out.
The family relocated to the Phoenix area, where Owens and his fiancee thought they’d have a better shot at finding work. Nothing turned up.
“I looked at the situation, the economy, the bills; no matter which way I looked at it, it seemed dire,” Owens wrote. He prepared to rejoin the military — his last resort — and swiftly married so the kids would formally have a stepmom when he left the country.
He was turned down.
He enrolled full time in college, attempting to live off GI Bill benefits and credit cards. One month, he sold a guitar for one-third of what it was worth to try to make rent. A donation from a church committee covered electricity.
The local Veterans Affairs hospital officially diagnosed the post-traumatic stress disorder that had lurked under the surface since Owens’ return. But instead of finding relief in knowing what he was up against, he felt typecast.
“I felt like it was a stigma that society had placed on me, something I’d been running from, something I did not want,” he said. “When it caught up with me, I was really downtrodden.”
So was his wife. They separated shortly thereafter, and Owens and his boys moved back in with his parents in New Mexico.
He grew depressed, bitter and forgetful. He began drinking.
One night, angrily speeding along a dark road, Owens totaled his Land Rover. Though his injuries were minor, he wished he’d died in the accident.
“One more brush with death, one more unexplained survival,” he wrote. “The vehicle was trashed, but me and Stanley yet again walked away.”
In early 2010, Owens and Stanley headed to Albuquerque for Owens’ annual VA appointment.
Discouraged, he recounted his downward spiral for the woman managing his case.
Her reaction floored him.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You suffer from hypervigilance, an overdeveloped sense of hazard recognition and situational awareness, and have an obsessive passion for making sure people are safe ... and you’ve figured out how to make a living out of it?”
When Owens offered a tentative “yes,” the woman couldn’t contain her laughter.
“As you get worse over the years, you’ll probably get raises and bonuses!” she told him.
“Look, I’m not making light of your circumstances, but you’re onto something here,” she said. “Most folks that have your symptoms self-implode and aren’t successful with it at all. It gets in the way of their work functions. You, you’ve turned it into your work function.”
The conversation helped loosen the grip of Owens’ persistent pessimism. And after that, the scattered puzzle that his life had become began to piece itself back together.
The mine reopened, and Owens was called back to work.
He found a university online, known for its occupational safety and health program, and it accepted almost all of his previous class credits.
A few weeks later, he and his wife reunited.
They returned to Phoenix in 2011, and Owens became the highest-ranking safety official at an industrial-construction company in Apache Junction. In 2013, the couple had a daughter.
But Owens still had one piece of unfinished business to take care of.
Owens was searching for another piece of paper when the one with the key to Stanley’s past appeared.
“I came across a box with a bunch of papers in it,” he wrote. “As I glanced through the contents, I found a letter. ... It was a typed note from one ‘Mrs. L. Wood.’”
Owens Googled the school and found Wood’s email, firing off a “shot in the dark” message.
Wood first thought the letter was a scam, though its “well-worded and polite” nature made her reconsider.
She wrote back.
While Owens worked to finish the narrative letter chronicling Stanley’s journey, Wood worked to coordinate the details of his return.
“My principal went with me, because he knew Alan,” she said. “All his friends were there, taping it on their cellphones.”
The package wasn’t just for Alan, however. It also contained a thank-you letter for Wood, along with a flag Owens had carried during his service.
The surprise left Wood in tears.
“I think teachers and soldiers kind of have a lot in common,” she said. “You go to work. You get criticized. But you just keep plugging away, because you’re trying to make a difference.”
Alan, blindsided by the surprise delivery, waited until he got home to study the full, “amazing” narrative. As he was applying to colleges and preparing for a major in computer engineering, the last few lines resonated particularly well.
“I know by now you are approaching the age when you will embark on your own journey,” Owens wrote. “Might I make a suggestion?
“Pick up your adventures with Stanley where ours ended. Put him in your wallet,” he wrote. “You will undoubtedly face hard times. You will experience lows and uncertainty. But, whenever you feel despair or emptiness setting in, remember a saying I learned in the Army — ‘If you ever get to the point where it’s hopeless and nothing more can be done, you’ve overlooked something.’
“And, if you need a second opinion, there silently, you will have a passenger, hanging out, folded up in your back pocket, that can vouch for me.”