By Brett Gillin
It started out as a project for a class full of 8 year olds. Now, a decade later, it’s taken on not only a life of its own, but a series of life lessons that simply can’t be taught. And its thanks to a third grade teacher named Luella Wood, a student named Alan Orduna and a young soldier named Brian Owens that we get to relive the story of ‘Flat Stanley’ and his incredible journey.
This story in USA Today explains that the saga began in a classroom in Huntsville Arkansas 10 years ago. A third grade class, taught by Luella Wood, was working on a project based on a popular children’s book called “Flat Stanley.” The children, after reading the book about a boy who was smashed by a bulleting board and began mailing himself to his friends for adventure, decided to make their own ‘Flat Stanleys” and send them off to their friends and family. However, Alan Orduna didn’t have a particular friend or family member in mind to send his ‘Flat Stanley’ to, so his teacher decided to send it off to an Army unit in Baghdad.
Alan Orduna did not hear back on his ‘Flat Stanley’ that year. Nor did he hear a peep the next year or the year after that. In fact, Alan forgot that he was even waiting for ‘Flat Stanley’ to come back altogether. But while he was waiting, then forgetting about his project, ‘Flat Stanley’ was having an adventure that few people could imagine.
Stanley made his way to Baghdad and was picked up by a young soldier named Brian Owens. Owens came from a long line of military men, and had almost stumbled into the armed forces himself, after not being able to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Owens explained to USA Today “I was struggling with my grades, I loved education and I loved learning, but I just couldn’t make heads or tails of what I wanted to do with myself. I needed some direction.” He found that direction at the age of 20 when he enlisted in the Army.
Four years into his Army career, Owens received the package from Alan Orduna with Stanley inside. Owens loved the idea and immediately took to the project, folding up Stanley and putting him into his wallet, knowing that his adventures would make for a great story with Alan Orduna. He told USA Today, “I could just picture them kind of starry-eyed after getting a letter back, thinking ‘Oh wow! A soldier overseas carried this, and he went here and there and did this and that.’”
“This and that” ended up being an incredible adventure, and a series of life lessons that will be almost impossible to forget.
Stanley made it through dozens of combat patrols in Iraq, countless firefights, mortar attacks, dodged sniper fire, survived improvised explosive blasts and car bombs, and even the palace of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday Hussein.
For all the physical adventures Stanley went through, he also went through more than his share of mental trials and tribulations. Stanley was there when Owens began suffering from PTSD, when the rigors of war started to weigh too heavy on Owens, and when Owens finally left the Army. And Owens began writing a travel journal, describing his trials and tribulations, which would one day become the story of ‘Flat Stanley’ as well.
Owens returned to the U.S. and found work, but the down economy forced him to move around. Owens struggled with being a single father after he was divorced, and lived through the ups and downs of getting a college education, finding and marrying a new woman, and eventually securing a high profile job that fit his personality perfectly. All that time, Owens still had Stanley in his wallet, but Owens had forgotten about it himself, until he finally had to replace the wallet. When he realized Stanley was still with him, he knew he had to return it as quickly as possible.
Owens struggled to find out where to send Stanley back to, but eventually found Wood’s email address, and coordinate with her on how to get Stanley back to Alan.
He sent Stanley back to Alan, accompanied with the travel journal detailing his trials and tribulations, his successes and failures, and a multitude of life lessons learned. Owen included a note with the package that read “I know by now you are approaching the age when you will embark on your own journey. Might I make a suggestion? Pick up your adventures with Stanley where ours ended. Put him in your wallet. You will undoubtedly face hard times. You will experience lows and uncertainty. But, whenever you feel despair or emptiness setting in, remember a saying I learned in the Army — ‘If you ever get to the point where it’s hopeless and nothing more can be done, you’ve overlooked something. And if you need a second opinion, there silently, you will have a passenger, hanging out, folded up in your back pocket, that can vouch for me.”