Drawings by young Valley artists cheer troops in Kabul

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From one chilly valley to another, artwork by area children has made it 6,858 miles to the desk of a Walla Walla soldier serving at a military installation near Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul.

And since he's been stationed near the ancient city of 3.9 million people at 5,900 feet elevation, Karen Ruzicka's dad, U.S. Army Reserve Capt. James "Jim" Ruzicka, acquired the nickname "Angry Bird No. 1."

His yearlong stint started in early November, Karen said. Her supervisor with the Camp Fire USA After School program, Bonnie Torres, suggested their young charges at Sharpstein Elementary could write him.

Boy did they, inspired by that stylized, wingless Angry Bird, many of which are featured in a Finnish puzzle video computer game from Rovio Mobile. Millions of people know about the miffed creatures, including through the 20th Century Fox animated film "Rio."

Karen is in her fourth year with Camp Fire as a summertime and after-school program counselor at Sharpstein with students ages 5-11. Her staff provides adult supervision, snack, homework and reading times and a lot of activities and outdoor time, she said. They average 20-30 kids per day.

The children illustrated their letters to Jim with the red Angry Birds. They asked him questions, to which he replied that he enjoyed getting their missives.

"Actually it is the little things that make any soldier's day. It is really the kids' innocent honesty that means the most," Jim wrote to me from Kabul via Facebook on Jan. 25.

"When I read every one of their letters I just cannot quit smiling at their messages and honest questions and comments. I have taped several around my desk, that I reread all the time and have the rest in a box that I pull out and read if I ever need a dose of kid therapy."

Other folks at his compound drop by his office "for a kid perspective and an Angry Bird fix," he added.

Jim deployed with U.S. Forces-Afghanistan in Kabul, arriving there on Veterans Day, 11-11-11.

His assignment is with the USFOR-A Provost Marshal Office as deputy provost marshal plans officer. He directs and supervises military police resources within the theater - about 5,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors - and several hundred dogs.

He's part of a team that provides personal security detail during drives around the Kabul Cluster, he said as he described how his new moniker came into being.

"On my first drive, there was a little plush Angry Bird in our office area. I mentioned to the driver that we needed a good luck idol on our trip ... so the bird got a ride. (And he has made every ride with me since then.)

Because almost everyone uses a call sign, such as "Super Bee" for Jim's driver, and "Dragon Slayer," "Strong Arm," and "Timberwolf" for others, "in jest I said I will be ‘Angry Bird.' It caught on. Besides that, it fit my personality to just be a little different.

"So, with the power of Facebook and good family and friends (and Karen's group), after a few postings about the Angry Bird, I have now received and collected several little and big stuffed Angry Birds, and many letters," Jim said.

He said he works on reports and daily briefings, attends meetings and briefs colonels and generals "on what is going on throughout the entire country of Afghanistan."

Some of his meetings are via video conference with people all over the world and on some days he enjoys working with military dogs. Other days he visits bases. After dinner he answers email and works on anything that happened that day, then heads to his room about 8 p.m.

In answer to the children's questions, he likes pie. And cheese. "And I truly enjoyed every one of your pictures of Angry Bird."

"I want to tell you all: you're welcome. It is my pleasure serving you and the country. It is sad being away from my family, but we are in Afghanistan to help these people feel safe and have freedoms like you do," he wrote in his Dec. 28 letter.

At Christmas, his family shipped him Angry Birds paraphernalia. "Our whole family thinks it's hilarious," Karen laughed.

Jim has years of military service. From 1984-87 he was on active duty and in Korea from 1985-86, and the following year was stateside with the 101st Airborne. He then joined the Washington Army National Guard and commanded the Armor Company in Walla Walla with missions that included transition to M-1 tanks, and responding to "Firestorm 91" in the Spokane area.

He served with the U.S. Army Reserves from 1993 through 1997, which included closing several units, including the Walla Walla Battalion.

From 1997-2009, he was out of the service, but rejoined with a Fort Lewis, Wash., unit after his five children, including Karen, the youngest, graduated high school and moved on.

A native Walla Wallan, Jim graduated in 1980 from DeSales High School, in 1982 from Walla Walla Community College, in 1984 from Eastern Washington University, where he majored in radio-television and English, and in 1997 from Walla Walla University with an elementary education degree. From 2001-10 he owned Gotta Go Embroidery, a T-shirt and souvenir company on Main Street, Karen said.

In his communique to me, Jim added that "I jokingly tell everyone that the concrete walls and concertina wire around the compound here in Kabul are nothing new to me since I spent the last 12 years in prison. (Pause for effect.) Of course, in Walla Walla, I was able to go home every night unlike here. Yes, I have worked for Washington State Penitentiary for the past 12 years, taking leave to deploy."

Karen said her dad keeps in touch on Facebook and uses his 30 minutes of call time every few days talking with his mother, Eleanor Ruzicka, of Walla Walla.

•••

Enthusiastic local musician Audrey Renaud, a member of Walla Walla Choral Society and First Congregational Church choir, is seeking folks interested in sharing their singing talents with Lincoln High School students.

Several leading voice teachers and musicians in town are collaborating with Lincoln teachers to create a production to be performed in May, according to Audrey.

Walla Walla Community College voice teacher Julie Jones, pianist Gary Hemenway and Blue Ridge Elementary music teacher Margaret "Maggie" Yount are working with Lincoln's after-school coordinator Jeremy Gradwohl on the project.

"Everyone wants to see the kids excel and be successful ... Everyone agrees it would be a fun thing to do for the students and would be personally rewarding for both the students and the adults involved," a release stated.

The idea is based on the success of senior citizens' groups trained to sing pop songs. The most famous of these is Young at Heart from Massachusetts. They were the subject of a recent documentary and are featured in YouTube videos (see youtu.be/CjnfoFg7i7g).

Walla Walla Choral Society could be involved, too, working with the students to learn the music.

Currently the idea is to practice from 2:10-3 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, although times could change depending on schedules of teachers and adult singers. Rehearsals are planned to take place at The Center at the Park. They would learn the music and some choreography. Possible songs include "Viva la Vida," by Coldplay; Listen to Your Heart," "Stand By Me," "Lean On Me," "Bless the Broken Road," "16 going on 17," "Say A Little Prayer," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "Dancing Queen," "Michelle," and "Seasons of Love."

Audrey is not seeking a solid commitment, but would like to have an idea who'd be interested. For further information, email her at ajrd822@yahoo.com .

"I appreciate your willingness to help the students with this wonderful musical opportunity," she said.

•••

Ten years ago members of the Native Plant Society here worked with R. Randal Son, then director of Blue Mountain Humane Society, to begin a Native Plant Garden.

Betsy Kaiser prepared a written agreement so the planting and maintenance of the front eight beds would become the showcase for such a garden, said NPS member Nancy Berlier. They aimed to grow native plants in Walla Walla so people could see how they adapted in the Walla Walla Valley and used less water.

After the original project was completed, NPS members planted native perennial flowers, shrubs and trees on the rest of the grounds.

"Almost all the plants have thrived under dutiful care. In fact some, like the goldenrod and the golden pea threatened to take over wherever they were planted," Nancy said in her report.

They erected a 3- by 4-foot "The Native Plant Garden" sign in one of the entrance beds, but it faded over time and needed sprucing up.

When they went to replace it, Whitman College student Hannah Sieracki sought and was awarded a grant from the college for a new sign. It "more aptly describes the benefits of native plants … birds, bees and butterflies. And, being adapted to this climate … use less water," Nancy said.

Laura Maier and other NPS members are developing a walking guide of the plants, identification of the major shrubs and perennials in each area as well as a bird guide.

"Our motto: If you plant natives, the birds, bees and butterflies will come. Come, check out the garden and learn all you ever wanted to know about growing natives in your garden," Nancy said.

BMHS directors, employees and their many volunteers have welcomed and worked with the gardeners over the years. "Sara Archer, current BMHS director, has been especially supportive and appreciative of our work," Nancy said. The gardeners host a plant sale of native and non-native plants each spring to support projects at the garden, Nancy said.

Plants for this endeavor are grown and donated for the sale and for replacements in the garden are produced by Jim and Susan Swayne.

Area residents are encouraged to join the NPS endeavor to reduce water usage here and enjoy the native garden, which is open to viewing during BMHS hours. Assistance with weeding is also appreciated.

"Oh yes, like your garden, the natives don't have a magic elixir to ward off weeds," Nancy quipped. Neither herbicides or pesticides are used on the grounds, which makes weeding a challenge, "but we know the dogs and cats (who have an outdoor enclosed kitty haven) are safer," Nancy said.

The location of several other native gardens in Walla Walla include downtown concrete pots at First Avenue and Main Street, Laura's special project, and Whitman College Health Center at the corner of Boyer Avenue and Merriam Street.

The Swaynes also have a several-acre native plant garden, Nancy describes as "wondrous," and the couple readily hosts tours.

Etcetera appears in daily and Sunday editions. Contact Annie Charnley Eveland at annieeveland@wwub.com or 526-8313.

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