New Castle News

August 31, 2013

Appreciative soldier makes special delivery

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Army Sgt. Matthew Johnston decided that a package he received in Afghanistan would require a personal response.

“People send all sorts of wonderful things, but this one was special because of where it came from,” said Johnston, who returned to the United States last month and is now stationed at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Wash.

The box that Johnston opened was sent by Operation Lifeline and had the name of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Cabot, Pa. printed on it. The son of two Lawrence County high school graduates,  Johnston knew it wasn’t far from New Castle, where he’d spent many summers of his youth visiting grandparents.

“It really helps when something connects you with home,” he said.

What he found inside the box sealed the deal. An apple cutout card covered with glitter and a handwritten message that said “Jesus Loves You” from 10-year-old Sabrina Sutej of Butler touched his heart. Sabrina made the card and sent it off to an unknown soldier as part of a St. Luke’s Sunday School project, never expecting to hear from the one who received it.

“Since she was so close to where my mom lives I knew I would find her,” said Johnston, who did just that last week at an area restaurant.

With help from his mother, Barb Brown Johnston, and Ann Houk of New Castle, co-chair of the local Operation Lifeline project, Johnston was able to surprise Sabrina. St. Luke’s is one the area’s churches that participate in the program.

“Mom and Ann did all the footwork for this while I was in Afghanistan,” Johnston said.

Johnston, his wife and their three children spent several days in New Castle, culminating with meeting Sabrina, a fifth grader at South Butler Intermediate School.

Johnston said receiving packages is uplifting to soldiers. He said when boxes of fudge arrived a few months ago, “Everybody was walking around pretty happy that day.”

Johnston presented Sabrina with his nametag along with military badges and pins he had received.

“She hasn’t quite grasped the magnitude of what was given her,” said Shanna Sutej, Sabrina’s mother. “As she grows older, I think those things will become even more special.”

Sabrina was told she would be meeting a soldier, but had no idea it would be the one who received her card.

Johnston arrived in his full dress blues. When everyone was seated, Johnston displayed the apple card that Sabrina had signed and thanked her for sending it.

“I kept it with me,” said Johnston, who put Sabrina’s card in his locker. But when handling it, the glitter she’d applied came off everywhere.

Johnston said his buddies called him the “most fashionable soldier in Afghanistan.”

Operation Lifeline, which has sent hundreds of packages filled with dry drink mixes, fudge, candy and other items, is an outreach ministry of Christ Lutheran Church, 1302 E. Washington St.

Johnston, a senior medic for Bravo Company 4-9 Infantry, was born in Butler before moving to Athens, Tax., where he attended school. He still has many relatives in New Castle. His late father, Robert, was a graduate of Shenango High, while his mother, the former Barb Brown, graduated from Laurel High in 1973.

“Soldiers seldom get an opportunity to thank a person directly for sending a gift,” Johnston said. “I’m glad I was able to do that.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)