STEELVILLE, Mo. - It's a friendship that started on opposite sides of the world.
Middle school students in Steelville chose Staff Sergeant Janet Thomspon as their pen pal, and what started as a friendship through letters turned into a bond that now feels more like family.
It's the type of lesson you can't learn from a book.
"I want the kids to understand we're here because these people are here to protect us," said seventh grade teacher Jennifer Whitson.
That's why the walls of Mrs. Whitson's classroom are decorated with uniforms, flags, and letters from half a world away.
Many of those letters are from Staff Sergeant Janet Thompson, a soldier who's become more than just a pen pal to these seventh grade students.
"She's really special, she's like my hero to me, she's my idol. I hope I could follow her footsteps one day," said seventh grader Betty Evans.
She's so special because for almost every letter these students wrote to Thompson, they received one back, all the way from U.S. Army compound in Afghanistan.
"We know that that's time out of her free time that she could have been spending doing anything else but she chose to write letters to my students, she made my students feel special," said Whitson.
And the feeling goes both ways.
"These kids are a great bunch. They brought a smile to my face every single time I got a letter," said Thompson.
But today, that connection reached beyond pen and paper.
Staff Sergeant Thompson decided to spend spring break traveling from Ft. Riley, Kan. to Steelville, Mo., putting a face to the words she sent during her three month deployment.
A visit that proves just because her deployment may be over, her connection with this classroom is not.
Brandie Piper, KSDK