Educator-soldiers pick up their lives.
NEA members are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many more have served in past wars. What’s it like coming home and back to the classroom? Members share their stories. If you have a story about returning to school after military service, share it here.
‘Did you see Osama?’
I was a seventh-grade Spanish teacher at a middle school in the Bronx, loving my new career and going out with my friends every weekend, when I was called up with my Army National Guard unit in the spring of 2004.
At first I was in denial. My contract with the military was expiring in just five months, and I did not think I was going to go off to combat.
I broke the news to my principal and in a matter of a couple of hours, the whole staff knew. Next on the list were my students. One girl started crying. She became distant after my announcement. I later got a letter from her saying she felt all the important male figures in her life were abandoning her. I felt like I had failed her.
Congressman, Teacher, Soldier
I came back in September 2005 and went to work the very next week. I wanted my life back, and I did not want my students to have substitute teachers for a month. But as soon as I came into the room, I felt the tension. The students did not know how to react. They all knew where I had been and wanted to ask questions: “How was it in Iraq?” “Did you take showers there?” “Did you see Osama Bin Laden?”
The main thing they asked was, how many people did you kill? Maybe that’s because their idea of war was videogames. I told them I didn’t want questions like that—too personal. I wanted them to ask about Iraqi kids, and some students did—how they dress, what we can do to help them. Our best missions were escorting civil affairs teams doing reconstruction—helping out, not fighting.
As soldiers, we had a very limited relationship with children, but every week, we would buy candy at our PX and when we went into a neighborhood, we would throw candy to the kids. When kids came out, we knew we were safe. If they didn’t, we knew we were about to get hit.
Rafael Vasquez, Bronx, New York
‘Does everybody live in tents?’
I was called up in the Reserves in March 2003. I had an 18-month-old son, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. We were nervous.
I first served as a combat military police officer, escorting large vehicles up and down the main supply route, and then I was switched to helping customs inspectors make sure American soldiers didn’t take antiquities with them when they left Iraq.
After four and a half months in theater, I tore a knee ligament and was evacuated to the United States, a month before my younger son was born. I rode six hours from the hospital where I was recovering from surgery to the hospital where my wife was in labor, and I was there in a wheelchair when she gave birth.
When I returned to teaching, it amazed me how far removed my students were from the war. I take to heart my job as a world geography and history teacher to inform my students of the world around them and how everything impacts them. I’m trying to show them that other cultures are not so different from their own. One student asked me, “Does everybody in Iraq live in tents?” I said, “Do we all live in log cabins?” Students don’t realize that Baghdad looks like Baltimore or Boston or Orlando: It’s got highways and skyscrapers and people driving cars.
The war changed me. I take things more personally now. When I see a kid crying, it affects me more than before. I’m also more abrasive. When you tell someone in the Army to do something, they do it. Outside, you have to be careful how you say things. My children have helped me adjust to that more than anybody.
Timothy Boulay, Sebring, Florida
‘It helps me teach tolerance.’
Having served for 20 years, and deployed as a commander to Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war with Serbia in Kosovo, I can tell you it sure added stories to my box of stuff. In the classroom, it helps me teach tolerance and Dr. King’s vision.
I use the example of Brcko in Bosnia, where one town went against the opinions of the rest of the country. All the factions in town put aside their differences and worked together. They set up their own government. All parties had an equal say—and it worked!
Public support of us as individuals has been wonderful, but the message of supporting the troops can be hollow when those deployed see mass protests against the mission (which is really about building schools and a humanitarian, friendly government). No, we can’t change people quickly, but it makes it difficult convincing others that you are doing good when they see our own media rallies condemning our presence there.
Tom George, Scottsdale, Arizona
‘This is discrimination.’
My biggest problem coming out of the military wasn’t readjusting to civilian life, it was getting what I deserved from the New York State pension system. When I applied to teach in New York, I was told I could get credit for the time I served in the Army during the Korean War. But when I tried to get that credit, I found out it was only for people who left New York teaching jobs to go into the military. I was teaching in Florida when I was drafted, so I was out of luck. This is discrimination.
Bob Heath, Ormond Beach, Florida
By Cynthia McCabe
It’s a rare educator who earns the titles of both Citizen-Soldier of the Year and Teacher of the Year during a career, but NEA member Tim Walz has done just that.
Now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Walz (D-Minnesota) served for 24 years in the Army National Guard at the same time that he was working in the classroom. After an overseas deployment to Italy as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (the name given to the military campaign that includes actions in Afghanistan and Iraq), Walz retired from the National Guard and returned to education as a high school geography teacher in Minnesota. In 2003, he earned the honor of being named Teacher of the Year for his district in Minnesota. He is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress.
His two types of service, in the Guard and in classrooms from China to a South Dakota Native American reservation to Minnesota, inform Walz’ current views on educators and students needing to have a better sense of military service and veterans’ issues. “Leadership skills and teamwork you learn in the military can serve you incredibly well in the classroom, and I think we should be doing more to encourage that,” says Walz. He is a co-sponsor of a bill that boosts the Troops to Teachers program, which helps military personnel transition to teaching jobs. “We should be doing more to encourage that.”
Asked if today’s students could benefit from more civic education about the role of military personnel, Walz issues an emphatic yes.
“We should do everything we can to remind students of the sacrifices that previous generations have made and try to inspire them to a life of service,” he says, emphasizing that a crucial part of that is making sure government fulfills its commitment, with benefits and support, to active personnel and veterans. It is a “moral obligation” Walz says, owed to the men and women who have defended the country, and those now in power must set an example for young people, to ensure they do the same for future veterans.
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