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He was a soldier. She was a student. They became pen pals

After exchanging letters during the Vietnam War, the pair met for the first time 56 years later

Kris Feeney (left) and Ned Felder (right) on the football field of South Carolina State University
Kris Feeney and Ned Felder meet last year. (Courtesy of South Carolina State University)

It was happenstance how a 30-year-old U.S. solider serving in Vietnam and a 12-year-old girl from Michigan became pen pals in 1967.

When Ned Felder visited an Army mail room, he received a surprise care package sent by a Camp Fire group.

“Receiving mail from anyone — and especially family — was important during the war, but to receive a care package from a stranger meant a lot to me. My parents taught me to write a bread-and-butter letter whenever I received a gift or anything from someone,” said Felder, who responded by sending a thank-you note to the group.

Kris Olson — now Feeney— replied to Felder on the group’s behalf, sparking an ongoing letter exchange.

“His letters were a treat and something to look forward to. He’s an incredible writer. Every time I received something in the mail from him, it was like a winning-the-lottery feeling,” said Feeney.

She saved Felder’s letters and other keepsakes, including a book about Vietnam and a doll dressed in a traditional silk tunic.

Felder appreciated Feeney’s letters, which told him about her grades, school and the instruments she played: French horn, bugle and piano. In his letters, he chose not to focus on the war but told her stories about his wife and three children and offered life advice to study hard.

They corresponded for more than a year and then less frequently after Felder returned home and life became busier for both.

Felder would rise up the ranks as a military lawyer and judge, a career spanning almost 28 years. He is now a retired colonel and lives in Burke, VA.

Feeney went to school for design, got married and raised a son and a daughter. She now lives in Greenville, SC, and works for a real estate brokerage firm. She has also endured the losses of her husband and son.

After decades of not corresponding with Felder, “I felt an urgency to find him to tell him how important he was to me in my life,” Feeney said.

She knew of his ties to his alma mater, South Carolina State University, and contacted the alumni office to find out his current contact information.

Felder said he was “absolutely thrilled” to receive another letter from Feeney.

After 56 years, they arranged through the mail to meet for the first time at the university last year on Veterans Day. They attended a football game and watched from the president’s box. Felder wore his dress blues for the occasion.

Seeing the woman he’d only known as a seventh-grade girl, he was overcome with emotion.

I told myself, “You’re a colonel. You don’t cry. You’re a tough guy,” he said.

The Washington Post and other media outlets reported on the meeting, which resulted in hundreds of social media posts.

“I didn’t know back when we wrote the letters and would meet up decades later, our story was going to mean so much to so many people,” said Feeney.

Felder, who coincidentally has a daughter named Kris, believes the story of his friendship with Feeney resonates with people because “our letters are exciting to read and are authentic reflections of the heart.”

They are planning to meet again this summer in the Washington, DC, area, and they’re also exchanging letters again.

“We will stay in touch. I will make sure I continue to write him,” Feeney said.