Out of uniform, still in the nation's service

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Sally Lanar | 15 years, 7 months ago

Five Blair teachers reflect on lessons they learned during their years in the military's ranks

Guns and explosions. Marching drills in perfectly straight lines. Orders, yells and more explosions. These are the images the word "military" usually conjures. But it isn't that simple.

The experiences five Blair teachers had while in the armed services show that the military is far more than that. Far more than what recruiting officers may tell students or what the press reports back from Iraq. The teachers' stories - from exotic foreign countries to Orlando boot camp, from treating injured veterans to interpreting enemy codes - serve as proof that, while the military may be about fighting, it's also about learning.

From learning often comes the passion for teaching, an interest these five teachers share with over 9,000 U.S. armed-service veterans who have chosen teaching as their second career, according to an Aug. 31 report by the National Center for Education Information (NCEI). NCEI's report examined Troops to Teachers, a Department of Education program that helps retired military personnel make a transition from the battlefield to the classroom. Although none of the five Blair teachers acquired their jobs through the program, they all share its participants' dedication to students.

But before they made the commitment to their students, they made one to the military. Whether by choice or by draft card, they entered its ranks and marched forward into an experience that would influence the rest of their lives.

Donning the uniform

Magnet secretary Margie Berardi wasn't thinking about the long-term effects of the military on her life when she woke up one morning in 1978 and decided to put college on hold in order to enlist. The process was simple: On Feb. 28, she signed the papers as snow blanketed the ground of her Minnesota hometown, and on March 1, she stepped off the plane into tropical Orlando, Florida, for boot camp.

User support specialist Anne Wisniewski enlisted for different reasons. In 1964, Wisniewski chose to take advantage of a military-run nursing school at George Washington University to help finance her education. The program was far from a free ride, though - Wisniewski had to pay back her education with three years in the service.

Unlike Wisniewski and Berardi, Magnet Physics teacher Ralph Bunday did not have a choice when the draft card appeared in his mail in 1955. It was a summons that he had to obey and one that took him to post-World War II Okinawa. There, he worked to decode not only the secret signals of the enemy, but those of a foreign culture, as well.

A friendly enemy

As a communications technician at the height of the Cold War, Bunday was stationed in Okinawa, where the military's presence was minimal; only 50 or so personnel were positioned on the island, he says.

Bunday remembers how encounters with the Okinawans would frequently make him realize his cultural ignorance. He recalls one time when, on his way home from duty, he circled a farmer's entire farm, watching the man methodically plant potatoes, until the two crossed paths. "He looked up at me and, in perfect English, said, 'It's very interesting, isn't it?'" remembers Bunday, laughing. The farmer had attended the University of California and was forced to return to Okinawa at the outset of World War II, when suspicion mounted against those of Japanese origin.

Social studies teacher Kevin Moose's experience in the military would also repay him with a cultural education. From 1985 to 1988, he was the only American in a small Italian town near the nuclear missile site where he was stationed. All of the townspeople there treated him with trust and attention, he feels. "I never locked my door, never cooked a meal in three years," he says.

After work, he would go to a local bar and keep his uniform on into the night to serve the Italians drinks, conversing with the customers in their own language. Sometimes, Moose says, he would teach the town's children English; they grew to call him "big brother" and "uncle."

Learning to walk in step

In contrast to Moose, the warm temperature in Orlando was one of the few things Berardi shared with the tourists who usually flock to the city as a vacation spot. Orlando was far from a leisure destination for her - it was a boot camp where she spent the first eight weeks of her training.

Berardi began her training by filing through an assembly line in which she picked up her new clothing and received the required haircut. Women could let their hair touch the bottoms of their collars, whereas men were required to have the customary military buzz, she says. Next were immunizations; Berardi received three shots in each arm. In an adjacent room, the men did push-ups to get their blood circulating after the shots, but the women didn't. "The next day, the girls were all like 'Oh, my arms!'" says Berardi, laughing.

That was not the last time Berardi dealt with pain during boot camp. Often, if one member of her squad made a mistake, the entire squad would be forced to run with their arms lifted perpendicular in front of them as punishment, she says.

Wisniewski also attended boot camp, but only for a short while before she left to become a nurse at Bethesda Navy Hospital, where she encountered the compelling stories of injured soldiers returning from Vietnam. What drew her in, Wisniewski explains, was the sense of camaraderie that developed among the patients. Once, she recounts, two patients made it their mission to help another patient recover from his injuries, even though the doctors had said he would never be able to walk again. Every day, they supported him as he struggled around the courtyard, his arms stretched over their shoulders. After two weeks, he could support himself, and by the end of the year, he could walk and talk. Such empathy and compassion are unique to the armed forces, Wisniewski says. "At that time in a civilian hospital, that never would have happened," she explains. "They didn't have that kind of support system."

Wisniewski witnessed how much that support system was needed as she treated the men and women who came back battered and broken from the rice paddies of Vietnam. "I wasn't there on the battlefields, and I can't pretend to know, but I saw firsthand the effects of war. Knowing that, I can't imagine declaring war on another country," she says.

Under fire

Although photography teacher Frank Stallings served in Vietnam, he never had to walk through the doors of a military hospital like Wisniewski's; he never received any major injuries while on duty. But that doesn't mean that the year he spent there didn't leave its mark.

Three months after he received his draft card in October 1966, Stallings was on a plane to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Once there, he served in the First Cavalry Division, which followed directly behind the troops on the front lines and acted as a fuel station for choppers.

Stallings's role, like others in Vietnam, had its dangers. His division's weak defenses were vulnerable even away from the front lines of attack. "We were sitting ducks," he explains. "We received sniper fire all the time."

Stallings soon stopped thinking when the bullets flew. "After you've been there for a certain period of time, you become a vegetable. I don't know of anyone who was with us who had any sense after 90 days. Everyone was nuts," he says.

The one time he was wounded, by a round of shrapnel in his hand, Stallings didn't notice it until later, and even then, he didn't think much of it. He soon became desensitized to seeing others get injured as well. "After a few months in - I hate to say the word - it became routine. You just became numb," he says.

Stallings's tour in Vietnam ended shortly after the 1968 Tet Offensive. The last 50 days were the most harrowing ones for him, because the fighting quickly escalated. But he made it home safely, and although he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for eight years, he managed to overcome the impact of Vietnam. Part of what helped him do that was to set his sights on a new goal: teaching.

From battlefield to classroom

According to Dr. John Gantz, the director of Troops to Teachers, former military personnel can bring valuable skills to the classroom, especially leadership and sensitivity to diversity. They can also add a personal perspective to history lessons, he says.

Moose agrees, explaining that when he teaches the Cold War in class, he shows his students the certificate he received for his service. He also uses the time he spent in Europe to make more effective lesson plans, such as discussions on other countries' health care plans that tie in his experiences in Italy.

Thanks to his time in the Navy, Bunday improved his interpersonal skills. "Prior to joining the military, I had this vision of buying myself a private island and living on it by myself like a hermit," he says. But when he taught at a rural high school in Indiana with a high dropout rate, Bunday couldn't just ignore the problems of his students. The military gave him the know-how to help them work through their difficulties.

From rural Indiana, Bunday made his way to Blair, where he has found teaching to be his passion. Now, he stands as the officer without a uniform, with the students as his troops.

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Sally Lanar. Sally Lanar finally is, after four long years, a senior in the CAP. When not canvasing Blair Blvd or the SAC for sources, she enjoys reading, writing short stories and poems and acting. She is also a self-declared francophile and would vouch for a French … More »

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