HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — Bringing a little holiday cheer to an unknown service member was all an 8-year-old boy was trying to do 25 years ago.
A single letter united a pair of Air Force veterans, and the handwritten greeting made its way back to its author — now an Air Force major — at Hurlburt Field Jan. 25.
It started 25 years ago, when students from Fulmar Elementary School in Mahopac, New York, wrote letters to military members who were deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm.
A young Stephen Rausa started his letter anonymously with “Dear Any Service Member,” and ended it with “Please try to write back.” As he sealed his letter, he never knew for sure if he would receive a response.
He never dreamed that he would get back a letter from someone with such a familiar name.
“There were a lot of letters boxed up, all addressed to ‘Any Service Member,’ ” recalled retired Master Sgt. Ben Rausa. “As I dug through the box, a return sender’s name caught my eye. He had the same last name as me. Rausa isn’t a very common name.”
Ben wrote back to his new little friend, and they started an unlikely relationship.
“Getting that letter from someone with the same last name was so cool,” Stephen said. “My entire family was sitting at the table, and they were all floored, in that loud Italian way. Everyone thought we must be related somehow, some way.”
They exchanged a couple of letters with photos, but over time they lost track of each other. They sporadically contacted each other, enough so that Ben knew Stephen was a pilot in the Air Force stationed at Hurlburt Field.
Today, Ben lives near Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. With the anniversary of Desert Storm this month, he was determined to find his pen pal from so many years ago.
“It got me thinking about bringing this around full circle and meeting Stephen and letting him have these old keepsakes,” Ben said. “I guess I never really thanked him for the nice holiday letter.”
The two finally met over lunch at the Soundside Club on Hurlburt Field.
“I was so excited to meet Stephen and see how far he has come,” Ben said. “The Air Force has meant everything to me. I am happy … to see he has chosen to be part of the Air Force family, too.”
As the two caught up, they realized there are so many similarities in their family tree. Both trace their roots back to Sicily. One more notable coincidence is that Stephen’s father was a crew chief with the 33rd Fighter Wing, stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in the 1960s. Sometime later, Ben was also a crew chief in the 33rd.
Although Stephen has been stationed here for several years, the friendship never fully rekindled until now.
“I certainly hope I stay in contact with him. I regret not reaching out sooner,” Ben said.
By the end of lunch, the two made a standing promise is to stay in touch — whether by email or by telephone.
“I never really thought much about writing that letter back then,” Stephen said. “But now it really makes you think about never passing up even the smallest of opportunities, you never know where it will lead 25 years later.”
Mike Raynor was previously stationed at Hill Air Force Base.