Roberto Diaz knows the meaning of “better late than never.” Abiding by this adage, Diaz took the time to pick up the phone and express his gratitude for a gesture of kindness … 20 years later.
In 1991, Roberto Diaz was 22 years old. At the time, he was a corporal in the United States Marine Corps, serving in Operation Desert Storm. Diaz was part of the Bulk Fuel Company 8th Engineers, a team that maintained and supplied fuel to aircraft. He was stationed south of Kuwait on the border of Saudi Arabia.
Flash forward 20 years. At the beginning of the month, Diaz sat in his Warwick home, sorting through old letters. That’s when he stumbled upon a letter sent to him while he was deployed. The letter was from a second grader, 8-year-old Tracy Campbell of Woonsocket.
Diaz ended up Googling Tracy’s mother, Terry, who had included a paragraph at the end of her daughter’s letter. When Diaz found they still lived at the same address, he jotted down their telephone number.
“I just decided it would be nice to contact her and thank her and to apologize for not writing back to her,” said Diaz. “It’s never too late.”
When Terry Campbell answered the phone, she wasn’t sure what to think.
“He asked if I had a daughter named Tracy,” said Terry, who wasn’t sure if she should offer up the information.
Diaz told Terry that he had received a letter from a young woman named Tracy Campbell, but didn’t want to go into detail if he had mistakenly contacted the wrong family.
But Terry remembered the letter, and Diaz, and struck up a conversation with the soldier she had never met.
“He wanted to call up and thank [Tracy] and tell her how much it meant,” said Terry.
Diaz asked if Terry could relay the message to her daughter, but Terry insisted he call her himself.
Tracy, now 28 and living in Connecticut, was caught off guard when she answered Diaz’s call.
“She didn’t remember the letter; she was so taken aback by [my call],” said Diaz.
“At first I didn’t really know what to say at all,” said Tracy. “I was really shocked. I was just like, ‘Wow.’”
Tracy was too stunned to ask questions, and didn’t say much to Diaz.
“I told her it was such a nice gesture, and we talked for about 10 or 15 minutes,” said Diaz.
But when Tracy hung up the phone, she regretted her lack of participation in the conversation. When she called her mother and told her about her chat with Diaz, Terry suggested they all meet up and continue their conversation.
Within the week, Terry was on the phone with Diaz again. She informed him that Tracy would be visiting Rhode Island on Dec. 10 and thought they should all meet for coffee.
Diaz accepted the offer, and invited the mother and daughter to his home to meet his wife and 5-year-old son.
Tracy and Terry were apprehensive about the meeting at first. They wondered if it would be strange or awkward. But when they arrived at Diaz’s home and met his family, they felt like instant friends.
“They are beautiful, beautiful people,” said Terry. “They were so welcoming. They were so much fun.”
Diaz shared pictures of himself from Operation Desert Storm with the women, and told them stories of his time in the Middle East.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Terry. “Seeing how they live, I can’t imagine having a child over there.”
“It was a little bit emotional,” said Diaz of the meeting.
Terry thanked Diaz for risking his life for their country.
“It was so nice to meet him,” she said. “I have such respect for what these people do.”
In addition to talking about Diaz’s past, they also talked about Tracy, and the details she mentioned in the letter.
“I like drawing and my mom says I’m an artist,” wrote 8-year-old Tracy.
Today, Tracy is an architect.
“I was drawing houses [at the time],” laughed Tracy. “I liked to draw my neighbor’s house.”
In the hopes of creating a tradition, Terry wrote Diaz’s son a letter. She hopes in 21 years he’ll look her up so they can swap stories.
Despite the passage of time, Diaz was still grateful for the letter he received all those years ago. For Tracy, it was an eye-opening experience.
“These letters really meant something to somebody,” said Tracy, who wrote the letter as part of a school project.
“After all this time he took the time to look up an 8-year-old,” marveled Terry. “They’re really super nice people.”
Over the holidays, Diaz and the Campbells exchanged Christmas cards, and they hope to stay in touch in the future.
“It was such an uplifting experience,” said Terry. “It was a really nice surprise. It’s nice to know there are still people that care like that.”
Tracy said it was an invaluable lesson in the positive experiences that grow from meeting new people and making new friends.
“People don’t usually do nice things for no reason,” said Tracy, “but there are really nice people out there.”