When the 367th Maintenance Company left for Iraq last September the entire Philadelphia Elementary School turned out at the end of Stribling Street waving banners and chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A!”

As they eagerly awaited the motordade, some students were quick to tell a reporter about “Matt.”

The soldier in the 367th Maintenance Company was a cousin to fifth grade teacher Robin McClellan and many of the students would come to put a face with the departure.

But none would come to know 2nd Lt. Matt Stovall as well as Mrs. Mac’s fifth grade as they developed a virtual friendship with regular e-mails and instant messaging.

Stovall died Saturday in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy.

Each week the elementary students eagerly awaited Stovall’s online chats.

One day last year Stovall responded to an e-mail from the students asking, among other things, if he’d seen any animals.

“I’ve seen some donkeys, camels, scorpions, and some cool birds,” he wrote.

Meg Thrash, now a sixth grader, said the news of Stovall’s death “didn’t seem right” to her and her friends.

“It seemed like we just talked to him the other day. I feel sorry for Mrs. Mac because he seemed like a brother to her — and for his wife, son and mother and daddy,” Thrash said.

One father told his little girl about the death Monday morning before school because it was certain to be a topic of conversation at PES.

Thrash recalled numerous messages the class received from Stovall as he told them about sleeping and taking showers in the desert.

“He told us about taking showers in this closed in area,” Thrash said. “You stood in there and they dumped a bucket of water on you, and then you get out, and the next person comes in and they do the same.”

Thrash also remembered Stovall saying he had to wait in line, at times, three or four hours to call his family.

In that e-mail Stovall suggested his family duplicate pictures he sent from Iraq so the class could view the country through his eyes.

Stovall communicated one or more times a week — if possible usually at about 10 a.m. Students made sure the speakers on their teacher’s computer were turned up so they could hear the alert indicating that a message had arrived.

Though he always took time to field the students’ numerous questions, Stovall often managed to teach a lesson or two himself.

Stovall told the students he loved to travel and see the countryside.

The pen pal relationship began after the class came back from the send-off with numerous questions.

Since none of the students knew anyone in the unit, they were interested in hearing McClellan talk about the soldier who was like a brother to her.

Thanks to a web cam, students could watch Stovall at his computer in Iraq as he told them about the cold and rainy weather and seeing the different animals.

When the computer signaled a message, students would immediately summon their teacher to see if it was from Stovall.

McClellan said students would gather around the screen and fire off questions to him faster than she could type.

“They always asked about the weather, about his sleeping conditions, the animals, vegetation and what kind of job he had,” she said. “He answered what he could.”

Did you feel any trembles when Iran had the earthquake a few weeks ago, one student asked in January?

“No, because we are normally feeling tremble from explosions,” Stovall replied in an e-mail, saying he may be in Turkey the following week.

“I hope that it goes through,” he said. “I love to travel and get to see the countryside. I have sent pictures to my family of the country. Maybe Mrs. Mac can get some duplicates made so you can see the country through my eyes.”

McClellan said the kids often quizzed Stovall about what part of Iraq he was in, aware that his answer would always be: “You know I can’t tell you that.”

Stovall believed in what he was doing in Iraq and relayed that to the students, telling them the country was doing a lot of good things such as re-opening schools and restoring clean water.

“He always told them to appreciate what they have, to appreciate their freedoms and being able to go to school,” McClellan said. “He told them to not believe everything they saw on the news, that they were doing some good things.”

Stovall sent the fifth graders a flag signed by members of the 367th while stationed in Washington before going overseas.

The flag, which later flew over Kuwait and southern and northern Iraq, included the signature of Joshua Ladd.

The flag arrived a week before Ladd, also of Neshoba County, was killed near Mosul on May 1.

After Ladd died, Stovall reassured the students.

“We were in class and Matt popped up on the screen and told them everything was going to be OK and that the rest of them would make it . . . just to keep praying for them and they’d be home as soon as they could.”

When classes ended for the summer, McClellan mailed the flag to Stovall’s son, Walker, age 2.