To a fifth-grade class, Petty Officer 1st Class Russell Stewart is The Seabee's Knees

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A student in Edison Elementary School teacher Judy Peasley's fifth-grade class holds a stack of valentine cards written to Russell Stewart, one of the class' two soldier pen pals to whom they'd been writing and sending care packages.

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Visiting Walla Walla and taking the time to thank his pen pals, Stewart holds letters he received from Peasley's class while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

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Emmanuel Ramos, 10, inspects the Stewart's uniform. Stewart came to school to thank the class for sending him letters and care packages while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

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With his family accompanying him, Stewart leads a discussion with Peasley's class about his experiences serving with the U.S. Navy SeaBees in Afghanistan. Peasley's class wrote letters and sent care packages to Stewart and another soldier while they were deployed.

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Fifth-grade girls from teacher Judy Peasley's class at Edison Elementary School lean on each other while listening to U.S. Navy Seabee MC Spc. 1 Russell Stewart talk about his experiences serving in Afghanistan.

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Two cellists work through a piece to warm up while freshman classmate Therese Lenoir, center, gets a little drawing done before they take the stage at Whitman College's Chism Hall Monday for their winter concert.

Building roads and hospitals in Afghanistan is one thing. Giving a presentation about building roads and hospitals in Afghanistan to a fifth-grade classroom is another, very different thing.

Whether through Navy training or natural temperament, Petty Officer 1st Class Russell Stewart, a mass communications specialist, showed the patience of a mountain as he talked with students in Judy Peasley's class at Edison Elementary School about his recent deployment with the Navy Seabees.

Or possibly, Stewart just enjoyed spending time with the students, who sent care packages to him while he was overseas.

"One of my favorite things is letters," Stewart said, visibly choked up. "When you guys are proud of us, it helps us be proud of ourselves."

Stewart emphasized that one of the biggest challenges he faced was being away from home for extended periods, and tedium.

"When you're doing the same thing over and over for eight months, it's very hard to stay motivated," Stewart told the class. "I very, very seldom was in any kind of danger."

During the presentation, Stewart emphasized the wide variety of jobs in the military, from cooks to missile guidance technicians.

Stewart has been a rescue swimmer, a missile-systems technician, a teacher and a photographer through the last two decades. Since 2010, Stewart has been deployed with a construction battalion (Seabees) as a photographer and journalist.

Despite a broad range of topics to chose from, Peasley's class asked questions about Stewart's favorite books, candy, and television shows.

Stewart's five children, wife and parents were on hand to answer questions as well, and the students wanted to hear from them. One student asked family members how it felt to have Stewart gone 253 days of the year.

In response, Stewart's 7-year-old son, Logan, walked over and gave his dad a hug.

"The best memories are when daddy's home," Logan said.

There will likely be many more good memories to come, as Stewart, after nearly 20 years in the Navy, is on the verge of retirement. For the next six months, Stewart will work on civil affairs projects and begin the transition process, including additional transition training through the Navy.

Even though Stewart won't need care packages anymore, he encouraged the students to keep sending them to other military personnel.

"It's very important, what you guys do," Stewart said.

Peasley's class has "adopted" three people to send packages to, in coordination with a program through the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. With Stewart returning home, the class will adopt a new recipient deployed overseas.

"We try to do it every month," Peasley said, adding the students bring items like toiletries, candy, magazines, phone cards and books to send to their adoptees.

Luke Hegdal can be reached at lukehegdal@wwub.com or 526-8326.

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