By People Staff
December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Anne Gonzalez was delighted to hear from her son, but he wasn’t phoning Anchorage all the way from northern Iraq to make small talk. Dismayed at the decrepit state of the schools in Altun Kopri—a town of 11,000 some 175 miles north of Baghdad—Army Capt. Paul Gonzalez wanted to enlist his family and neighbors to help. “It was obvious that this was a big issue with him,” she says of the mid-September call. “He knew we’d try and make a difference.”

And how. In just over two months, Anne, 56, and her husband, Rene, 62, a retired judge, have rallied supporters from Alaska to Texas to collect $18,000 worth of school supplies—pencils, crayons, notebooks—that their son plans to deliver directly to Altun Kopri’s 2,800 schoolchildren, with the first shipment due to arrive within days. While elsewhere in Iraq U.S. soldiers combat terrorists, Gonzalez and his 173rd Airborne Brigade comrades are greeted in Altun Kopri by children yelling, “I love you!” Mayor Abdul Mutalib Najmaddin says the same children used to hide when members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party walked by. “He has solved so many problems,” Najmaddin says of Gonzalez, 25.

No one has been more overwhelmed by the grassroots success of Operation Golden Bridge—the town’s name, in translation—than Gonzalez. “We came to Iraq because our country asked us to do something,” he says. “Since we’ve arrived, it’s become more personal.”