Building Hope, Extending Compassion

With Mom's Help, Soldier Takes Hands-On Approach to Conflict
By Steve Vogel

Thursday, August 2, 2007; Page T11 - << Back to Press

The reaction was immediate when Army 1st Sgt. Bruce L. Reges strode into the classroom in the Baghdad suburb of Baqubah, in the volatile Diyala province.

At 6-foot-5 and wearing full body armor, Reges, 57, looked fearsome to the schoolchildren. Outside, two Stryker armored vehicles blocked the street. A heavily armed security detail was checking out the roof and other classrooms.

Reges is assigned to an Army civil affairs unit out of Fort Bragg, N.C., working to reconstruct and support schools, irrigation projects and honey farms in Diyala. The team was visiting the school to assess what could be done to help, but the young students were terrified.

"Two of the girls started to cry and escape somehow, and the teacher had to calm them down and tell them that we were there to help them, not to hurt them," Reges recalled. "It was emotionally tough for me to see a child so traumatized by U.S. soldiers that they reacted that way."

That night in May, Reges sent an e-mail to his mother, Jean Reges Burn, at her home in Reston: Could she send him two small puppets that he could carry in the cargo pockets of his uniform?

"I thought, we need some way to let them know we are human, too -- fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers," Reges said. "So I thought two small puppets in my cargo pocket would be helpful in bridging the gap."

Burn quickly shipped a package of puppets to Iraq, including several German Steiff hand puppets she had in the house. "He's a big man, and when he has his armor on, he needs something to soften that appearance," Burn said.

The puppets had the desired effect on the children.

Reges soon sent another e-mail to his mother. "He wrote back and said, 'Mom, I need as many puppets as you can send, as quickly as possible,' " Burn said.

Thus was born Peace Through Puppets, a nonprofit organization operated by Burn and her friends that is dedicated to helping U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq communicate with children affected by the war by keeping them supplied with hand puppets.

Jean Burn, who is 80, was uniquely qualified to act on her son's request. "Long ago and far away, I was once a professional puppeteer," she said. In Colorado, she made marionettes and performed in a variety show.

After moving to the Washington area, she was a specialist in learning disabilities for 20 years with Fairfax County public high schools. She obtained grants to support her efforts to incorporate puppets into the curriculum. These days she is still a puppetmaker but has given up performing.

Bruce, her eldest son, "grew up with that, and I trained him," Burn said.

Reges, a Michigan resident, is a retired teacher who has been in the Army Reserve for 20 years. Called up in the fall, he deployed to Iraq in January, leaving behind his 25-year-old wife, Christy.

His mother's training has been put to good use in Iraq, where he pulls out a small puppet at almost any opportunity with a child.

"The reaction is immediate," Reges wrote in a recent e-mail. "The child reaches out, and I look at the mom and raise my eyebrows -- like, is it okay? I have never had a parent say no. Every child I have given a puppet to knows exactly what to do with them.

"They put them on and disappear behind Mom's skirt. I gave one to a little guy . . . and his mom and an aunt smiled so much -- it really meant a lot to me."

Reges has received support from his command and fellow soldiers, although "not all of them get it," he said via e-mail. One colonel "dressed down" a lieutenant colonel when he spotted the subordinate using a finger puppet to play with a child, Reges said. A few days later, the lieutenant colonel was involved in a house search.

"He told me he wished he had some puppets because the four kids in the house were terrified when our guys went through," Reges recalled. "I gave him a set of new ones, and he stuck them in his cargo pocket. He wasn't going to get caught short again."

Likewise, Reges said, one of the sergeants in his civil affairs team was skeptical but agreed to try the puppets, giving them to some children he encountered. "He came back with this incredible look on his face," Reges said. "When it works, it's like magic."

The puppets have become quite popular in Reges's unit. He estimates he has given away about 200, including some for a Special Forces unit heading out on long patrols to remote villages.

"I told them to let the medics give them out when they treat kids," he said. "The puppets never come back."

Reges sees another important benefit from the puppets.

"If we are seen as real human beings, it is harder to kill us," he said. "I had heard rumors of kids cutting command wires to IEDs on the way to school," to keep the improvised explosive devices from hurting Americans. "Even if it's not true, I would like to believe it was. So the pocket puppets idea was born."

Burn, working from her home, has embraced the project. "You know how mothers are," she said.

She ran out of her supply of Steiff and homemade puppets and has started ordering them from China. She is getting organizational help from relatives and friends living in Northern Virginia and Maryland, including fellow puppeteers Bob and Judy Brown of Oakton.

Burn said: "It's not going to heal the wounds of that war, but it's contributing a little comfort and compassion."

For information about the project, go to

Military Matters is published twice each month in the Extras. Steve Vogel may be reached at