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Alexandra House, a seventh-grader at St. Stephen's Catholic School on Grand Island, and Maureen Creighton, an eighth-grader at St. Paul's Catholic School in Kenmore, won first place in the annual essay contest sponsored by the Erie County American Legion and Legion Auxiliary.

The essays were on the theme: "My Letter to a Person in the Armed Forces."

Second place went to seventh-grader Clarisse Birkby of St. John the Baptist School in Alden and eighth-grader Paige Schultz of Annunciation School in Elma. Third place went to seventh-grader Brian Murray of St. Paul's School in Kenmore and eighth-grader Anthony Leone of St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore. The winners will be honored at the Erie County American Legion Convention in June and their essays will be forwarded to state competition.

Here is Maureen's essay:

Dear United States Soldiers:

Recently I read a copy of a letter that was written by a young man to his mother. This young man was recounting his ride to the United States Marine basic training camp as a new enlistee. He said that he was filled with all sorts of emotions. He said that at times it felt like the whole idea of becoming a soldier was surreal. At times during his trip, he was filled with pride, then fear, then back to pride. This young man honestly admitted that he found himself switching from repeating the Pledge of Allegiance to repeating a Hail Mary! It was a powerful letter written by a soldier who wanted to defend our country and who wanted to be brave.

After reading this letter, I felt that I wanted to write every soldier and tell them a few important things to remember. The first thing is, we all thank you for your willingness to fight for our country and our freedom. Before 9/1 1, freedom was a given! Freedom is not something we just should take for granted. It is something that we have had to fight for and will always have to fight for forever. The second thing is thank you for your dedication. I think we all know that in difficult times, it is difficult to be 100 percent dedicated with unwavering resolve. As a soldier, you persevere because of your dedication. All of us in the United States appreciate this and obviously benefit from your unselfishness. Finally, thank you for your passion for life. Your decision to become a U.S. soldier, your willingness to sacrifice your own life in order that we all can enjoy everything that we have (and sometimes take for granted) is unbelievable. Your efforts contribute to the cornerstone of the United States of America -- democracy.

So as I go off to school, enjoy my day, say the Pledge of Allegiance and witness the U.S. flag blowing proudly in the wind, I will remember you and your fellow soldiers who are with you today. I will pray just as that soldier mentioned in the letter he wrote to his mother, that you are all safe, strong, brave, and that you realize that we are all behind you back here in the country you are fighting for. Thank you for your efforts.

-- Maureen Creighton