By Ms. Elyssa Vondra (Jackson)April 25, 2019
From one desk to the next, pencils scrape papers, forming uneven letters scrawled in crooked lines of text in hopes of bringing smiles to the faces of deployed troops.
While students writing to pen pal Soldiers may not be uncommon, what is less usual is for their substitute teacher in Pennsylvania to fall in love with the platoon leader stationed overseas.
Marrying a military man wasn't necessarily always the plan, but that's how the cards fell into place for one Fort Jackson 2018 Volunteer of the Year whose Army-centric life led her to do more than 1,000 hours of community service work on-post last year.
"I get more out of it than I put into it," said Erin Pieri, a Drums, Pennsylvania native. "I just really like helping."
Pieri is one of more than 2,272 volunteers who contributed more than 25,000 hours of service to the Fort Jackson community last year, said Marilynn Bailey, Army Volunteer Corps coordinator.
Pieri originally landed at Fort Jackson through her husband's line of work after meeting now-Lt. Col. Jason Pieri while substitute teaching. They corresponded to allow his Soldiers, stationed in Bosnia, to communicate with her elementary school students.
Pieri was having some trouble landing a permanent teaching position at the time, so Lt. Col. Pieri recommended she look at employment opportunities in the south.
In no time, Pieri had a job offer in Savannah, Georgia that she took. Lt. Col. Pieri got stationed in the city shortly after, and they met in person, marrying a year later.
Now the pair have three kids: two daughters -- Ellie, 16, and Emma, 13 -- and a son, Jared, 8.
With some health issues in the Family, Pieri left her teaching position to be a stay-at home-mom years ago.
Now that the kids are all in school and Lt. Col. Pieri is the battalion commander for the 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry Regiment, Pieri says she has taken on a "hodgepodge" of volunteer work.
"There was a need," Pieri said. "I had availability … I just felt like it was my turn. I had time in my day."
Pieri has been the advisor for the 2-13 Family Readiness Group for roughly the last two years.
She is a member of the Victory Spouses Club, and since her kids all play, she volunteers with the Columbia Cyclones Youth Hockey League.
She works with the "2-13 Gives Back" program, helping coordinate food drives, and acts as a company photographer for 2-13, photographing trainees during Basic Combat Training.
The United Service Organizations also takes advantage of her photography prowess, enlisting her to shoot some of their social media pictures.
Pieri's work with the USO, ongoing for the past two and a half years to a tune of more than 150 donated hours, takes her to the MEPS center every Tuesday morning, where she works with recruits being processed before starting BCT.
"I get to see (future Soldiers) before they're actual trainees," she said, all the while knowing she will be photographing some of them later on. They don't realize that or the Family's position with 2-13, so Pieri said she is "just a person to them" and can encourage them without the intimidation of Lt. Col. Pieri's title.
Pieri acts as a "calming hand" and a "calming spirit" for Families, said Katie Kennedy, USO senior operations and programs manager for South Carolina who has worked with her for the last couple of years.
"Erin's the best," Kennedy added, calling her "a real go getter" who is "not afraid of heavy lifting … she's one of our loudest cheerleaders" for troops heading off to their new assignments.
"She provides a little bit of relief," offering the soon-to-be-Soldiers' Family members reassurance. As a military dependent, she is able to provide them with firsthand knowledge of what being in a military Family is like.
Pieri was nominated for Volunteer of the Year by the 193rd Infantry Brigade in the Family member/civilian category for volunteering an estimated 85 hours per month in 2018.
She and the three other category winners -- Leah Pierre, Maj. Shawn Ross and Juan Burges Rivera -- were recognized at a Volunteer Awards Ceremony April 12 at the NCO Club as individuals who demonstrate what Bailey calls "the characteristics of a true volunteer:" dedication, devotion, loyalty and honesty.
Editor's Note: Feature stories on the remaining Volunteers of the Year will appear in subsequent editions if the volunteers are willing to be interviewed.