NEW PORT RICHEY — The crowd surrounded the soldier in the classroom, eager to ask questions.
"Have you ever driven a Humvee?" asked one.
"Do you know my brother in the Army?" asked another.
"How old are you?"
For the students at Red Apple Adult Training Center, a school that teaches life skills to mentally retarded people, meeting U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Troy Babin on Wednesday meant more to them than it would to most. It was like meeting their hero.
Babin, who responded to the students' letters while stationed in Bamberg, Germany, for the past few months, made the students feel special simply by acknowledging them.
"We call ourselves the forgotten population," said Stephen Giammichele, executive director of the school. "Sometimes people look at them like they have leprosy. But this (writing to Babin) allows them to be heard and accepted, and they got a response. It's all about acceptance."
The school's correspondence with Babin was facilitated through Operation Military Pride, a program that allows members of the military to correspond with civilians.
The school had participated in the program once before with retired soldier Shannon Storey. The students wrote to her in 2001 when she was headed for deployment in Korea.
When Storey returned home in October 2006, she took a job at Red Apple alongside her sister, who works at the school.
"They sent me birthday cards, Fourth of July cards, and said they hoped I was doing well," Storey recalled Wednesday. "It was awesome. I came to see them every time I came home."
In November, school officials went to Operation Military Pride's Web site to see if they could find a soldier for the students to write to.
Officials at OMP gave the school the addresses for six soldiers. The school sent them pictures and cards, thanking the soldiers for their military service.
Babin, a master parachutist who supervises 80 people on tactics and shooting, was the only one who wrote back.
A few days ago, Babin let school officials know he would be visiting a friend in Tampa during a 15-day leave. He said he would make time to stop by the school.
Pat Miller, assistant program coordinator, let the students know they would be meeting their military pen pal.
"They were so excited," she said. "They were clapping and yelling."
On Wednesday, Babin sat in the center of a classroom at the school. He chatted and answered questions from about 50 students.
They learned that driving a Humvee isn't all that comfortable if you're 6-foot-4 like Babin.
They learned that Babin didn't know their relatives in the military.
And they learned that Babin just turned 40 last week.
Some wanted to shake his hand or take a picture with him. Others asked if he would say the Pledge of Allegiance with them.
Hands over their hearts, facing an American flag, the group recited the pledge in unison. Babin stood in the back of the crowd. Afterward, they applauded.
During the 20-minute visit, Babin told them not to feel bad for people who died in Iraq, because they were serving their country as they wanted to.
"Instead of feeling bad for them," he said, "call their families and thank them."
At the end of the visit, the students lined up against the classroom wall. Babin gave each student a handshake or a hug.
Afterward, when asked how he felt about meeting a soldier, student Clifford Baletta, 26, smiled.
"I was happy," he said. "Very happy."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.