Features

Superintendent Soldiers

Deployed to Iraq, school leaders apply their know-how to the U.S. military by Kate Beem

In the twilight of Larry Nowlin’s long career as an educator, the Arkansas superintendent should be thinking about building up his retirement. But his second job—as a command sergeant major with the Arkansas National Guard— has eaten up some of his nest egg and several of the last seven years, something over which the 57-year-old Nowlin has no control.

Since 1999, his National Guard unit has been called up three times for service in the Middle East. Nowlin only came to the 800-student Riverside School District in northeast Arkansas in 1998, and he’s been gone half the time since then, he says jokingly.

Generally, people have understood why he’s had to leave, Nowlin says. His contract has been renewed after each departure and return. Colleagues have stepped in to fill the void, and Nowlin tried not to leave them with too many unresolved matters.

Each time he left, Nowlin’s short-term replacement was an experienced principal in the district, but Nowlin tried to give assistance from afar. During his first deployment, he even completed Riverside’s budgeting process from Kuwait and submitted the budget to the district’s bookkeeper by fax.

Nowlin joined the National Guard as a 22-year-old in 1970 and began his career in education the next year. During the first 30 years of his military service, he saw little out-of-country time, save for a few training exercises in places like Wales, Honduras and Panama. Then the world got a little scarier and the full-time military got a little smaller. And infantry units such as Nowlin’s became an increasingly important aspect of U.S. military strategy.

“There’s nothing I can do at all in those circumstances,” Nowlin says. “The board just says, ‘Do it and get back.’ They’ve been very, very supportive.”

During Nowlin’s last deployment, which began in October 2003 and lasted 13 months, he landed with his unit smack in the middle of downtown Baghdad when they replaced the Army’s 1 st Armored Division. The part-time soldiers found themselves battling insurgents and weathering rocket mortar attacks.

Mounting Demand
As Nowlin struggles to balance his civilian and military careers, he has a lot of company in the school leadership ranks across the country.

When the U.S. Congress abolished the draft in 1973, the American military began relying on volunteers to actively fill out the five branches, as well as using the skills of the part-time soldiers who populate the reserve forces of each branch. The idea was to pare the cost of the military while promoting it as a career. As a result, officials say, enlistees are more serious because they want to be there, and many stay active longer than was the case with the draft, which required only two years of service.

If more personnel are needed, as is the case with the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorists in Afghanistan, the president can call upon Army National Guard and Air National Guard units controlled by individual states by declaring a national emergency, which President George Bush did after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That declaration still holds and has kept Guard units on standby for service.

The National Guard and the reserves comprise about 45 percent of the U.S. military’s forces, according to the Army Reserve. Reservists and Guard members spend some time each year in maneuvers and training. That’s why they’re often referred to as “weekend warriors.” When they are mobilized, their employers are required to grant them leaves of absence, guaranteeing they have jobs when they return. But unlike most jobs in civilian life, the demands of the superintendency are such that there never really is a down time. Filling in for an absent superintendent requires extensive knowledge of budgets and teacher contracts and curricular issues that relatively few possess.

Awkward Timing
During wartime or other periods of high alert, part-time soldiers can be mobilized with little warning. Mike Hall, the now-retired superintendent of the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District in New York, received word over Thanksgiving 2003 that his Army National Guard unit was being activated for duty in Iraq. In less than five weeks, he was gone from running the rural 1,100-student school system in western part of the state.

“It was so quick,” says Hall, 58. “I didn’t come back for 14 months.”

Fred Maiocco, superintendent of the 5,000-student Madison Elementary School District in Phoenix, had even less time to prepare for his overseas deployment: 12 days.

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a member of the Army Reserve, Maiocco, 41, learned in September 2004 that he had been mobilized as an individual to fill a critical need in another Army unit. As a logistics officer, Maiocco had special training in motor transport operations, something the Army needed in Iraq. So two weeks from the time he learned he would be called up, Maiocco left his school district behind for the war.

His deployment came at an awkward time. Maiocco, now a lieutenant colonel, had moved to Phoenix from the Denver area and assumed the superintendency of the Madison district, composed of four elementary and three middle schools, just three months earlier. From July to September he had worked with his school board to establish goals and was learning the ins and outs of his new district, including the names of those on his staff.

Maiocco’s five-member board was as shocked at his rapid deployment as he was, the transplanted superintendent admitted in a recent e-mail from Iraq, where he figures to be for another three months. Quickly, though, the school board named an interim. Linda Schmitt, a retired superintendent with 35 years of experience in education, stepped in, easing Maiocco’s worries about leaving his new post. A photo of Maiocco in Iraq greets visitors to the school district’s website (www.msd38.org).

“After the initial shock, the district rallied behind me and gave me a hero’s send-off,” Maiocco says in his electronic interview. “[Schmitt] and I correspond regularly so that I am informed about various district initiatives. I am anxious to return to Madison as soon as possible to continue the very important work being done in the district.”

Facing Misconceptions
Most Guard members and reservists walk between two worlds, grappling with that tension between serving country and staying true to their civilian responsibilities, says Air Force Reserve Major Rob Palmer, a spokesman for the National Committee for Employer Support to the Guard and Reserve.

In the non-military world, co-workers and even family members often don’t understand where the reservist goes on weekend training missions. And often, they find just as much misunderstanding from the military. When reservists and Guard members are called up and serve with full-time soldiers, they’re sometimes met with skepticism, Palmer says.

That’s something Steve Hull encounters constantly.

Hull , 54, superintendent of the 10,000-student Falcon, Colo., School District, is a captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Early in life he served six years of active duty in the Navy. Ever since, he’s been straddling the military and civilian worlds, always downplaying what he does in the other role.

“You’re always having to sell what you do, and there’s not always a good understanding of what that is,” Hull says.

Often he doesn’t feel support from those in the civilian world for his desire to stay connected to the military. Civilian support, he says, has ebbed over the years as fewer and fewer citizens have military experience. When he first became an educator, Hull encountered quite a few veterans of World War II or the Korean War. Now, as their numbers dwindle and the military relies on volunteers, Hull sees more confusion when he tries to explain what he does on his weekends away from school administration.

Yet the skills he uses on his job as the leader of a suburban school district directly transfer to his job in intelligence with the Navy Reserve, he says. In that world, he’s responsible for 40 people, some of whom are active duty. Hull doesn’t believe he will be called up because of the type of work he performs for the Navy. And that’s another point of tension, he admits.

“I really want to go and do my duty because you feel that way as a military person,” he says, “but I’m leading an organization. I’m disappointed in myself for not going, but I do know that’s how the decision had to be.”

Contractual Provision
Even with the all-out support of his school board and his tight community in upstate New York, Don Raw felt that tension.

Raw, 50, has led the 2,100-student Alden School District, located about 20 miles east of Buffalo, since 1997. He joined the Army Reserve in 1980 at a time when he was an unmarried teacher with few responsibilities outside work. Then shortly after the school year commenced in fall 2001, after 21 years without mobilization, Raw got the call-up.

After the terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington, D.C., Raw had heard rumors that his unit would be activated. In early November, his commander confirmed it, giving Raw, a chief warrant officer, just a few weeks to prepare his family and his school district.

Fortunately for Raw, he was a savvy contract negotiator. When he accepted the Alden superintendency, he told the school board of his role with the Army Reserve. While most reservists and Guard members draw military pay and forfeit their civilian salaries when they’re mobilized, Raw had included a provision in his contract that the district would continue to pay his full salary if he was activated. That proved providential for Raw’s wife and three sons, the youngest of whom is 8 years old.

No one was too shocked when Raw was called up, says Daniel Oles, president of the Alden school board. He was the board’s vice president when Raw was hired. After the terrorist attacks, the board and Raw discussed the possibility of his deployment and developed a plan. The board hired a retired elementary principal to serve part-time as interim superintendent and told Raw to try not to worry about things back home.

But of course Raw did. He wasn’t deployed overseas; his unit reported to Virginia, where he worked in military intelligence. He maintained regular phone contact with those in the school district and his family, but he couldn’t just pop home for a weekend, despite his relative proximity. During his year away, the Alden district went ahead with an $18.8 million building project that voters had approved before Raw’s deployment. A principal retired, and a replacement was found.

“You feel so helpless, and at the same time you feel very responsible,” Raw says.

He missed holidays, birthdays, his wedding anniversary. The worst was leaving his wife to deal with the day-to-day responsibilities of parenthood, Raw says. And she had a particularly rough time. Marlies Raw, an art teacher in a neighboring school district, fell on ice and broke her arm, and one son was bitten by a brown recluse spider and nearly lost his leg.

At the same time, though, Raw felt honored to be able to lend his leadership skills to the Army for awhile. He created a quality assurance program for a military base that now is used throughout Department of Defense, he says. That assignment wasn’t routine to his rank as chief warrant officer but was tied directly to his civilian work as a school superintendent, he says.

Stressful Experiences
Maiocco’s civilian and military vocations also have merged during his deployment away from his school leadership post in Phoenix. In Iraq, he supervises more than 1,600 soldiers and airmen who move supplies across the country over what Maiocco describes as “the most dangerous roads in the world.” He often travels with the convoys to ensure their safety. And he supervises a staff of 50 who support the convoys, all on a 24-7 schedule.

“It is complex and often exhausting,” he says in his e-mail correspondence. “My experience as a school district leader is directly applicable to my work in Iraq.”

So was Rich Appel’s. He’s the principal of Chilton Elementary School in the 1,200-student Chilton district near Sheboygan, Wis.

Appel, 40, is a major in the Army Reserve, which he joined 19 years ago. After 12 years in the infantry, Appel shifted to special operations, where he’s a civil affairs specialist. That allows him to take his civilian specialty, education, into the war zone. From January 2003 until April 2004, his civil affairs team worked to re-establish Iraq’s educational system, build a hospital and work with the welfare system and city governments there.

It was a tremendous professional opportunity, Appel says, and one that brought with it risks he’d likely never face in the United States. The minister of education in Baghdad, with whom Appel had worked, was assassinated. So was the translator with whom he worked. He spent time in many hot spots, places such as Fallujah and Ramadi.

“A stressful situation doesn’t create leaders. It exposes them,” says Appel, who described his war-zone experiences to a national conference of elementary school principals in Baltimore in April. “It’s the same back here. You encounter tough situations in a school district.”

To be sure, managing a 1,600-student high school can be stressful, too, as Ron Ortiz found out when he returned from his tour of duty in Iraq.

When Ortiz, 41, a major in the Army Reserve and the son of an Army officer, was called up in February 2003, he was assistant principal at Central Hardin High School in Cecilia, Ky., about 40 miles southwest of Louisville. Ortiz had been at the school a decade when his unit, based at nearby Fort Knox, was chosen to help rebuild an army base in Nasseria, Iraq. He and other Americans also rebuilt schools and constructed a water reservoir for rural villages.

In the midst of this work, Ortiz learned his school’s principal announced his retirement, so Ortiz applied for the job from afar. He interviewed with Superintendent Richard Hughes by phone and the school’s site-based council by satellite before he was hired for the school’s top job.

Ortiz had thought he would return by the end of 2003, but he ended up staying 11 months, which meant he spent most of his first year as principal in Iraq. Ortiz visited often via e-mail with his assistant principal and called the school’s interim principal every other week in order to stay informed about school affairs.

Instant Communication
Communication between the home front and the war zone is unbelievably clear and easy these days, thanks to e-mail and satellite phones. It’s so doable to keep tabs on what’s going on at home or the office, especially compared with earlier wars, such as Vietnam. Although some might view the instant communication as a double-edged sword because of the apparent speed with which bad news can be shared, the ease of communication is a boon overall, says Col. Tom Kolditz, who chairs the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at West Point. Communication eases the soldier’s mind, even when the news is about the tedium of everyday life.

“It’s very, very powerful,” Kolditz says. “Even if it’s just an e-mail message that tells where certain papers are, where the checkbook is, how to start the lawn mower. I saw a sergeant on video teleconference opening Christmas presents with his kids.”

Still, returning to school administrative work is difficult. Ortiz thought it would be an easy and welcome transition, yet he found himself taking lots of deep breaths to help him relax. He landed in March 2004 and resumed his school post a month later, after his school’s spring break.

“I probably came back too quickly,” Ortiz says.

That’s a common mistake, says Martha Rudd, an official with the Army’s public affairs office. Combat affects everyone differently. Some ease back into civilian life quickly. Others need more time. When soldiers first return from war, they’re often not as tuned into their needs as they should be, Rudd says.

“They just want to get back into their routine,” she says. “But post-traumatic stress disorder shows up later, not when they first return.”

Nowlin, the Arkansas superintendent, felt the effects of his military service intensely upon his third return from duty. His Guard unit had 10 days from the time they landed on U.S. soil until they were back in their home state. The Guard members were tired, and they’d lost four men during their time away. Nowlin had known some of the dead for 30 years, he says.

The experience changed him, mostly for the better, Nowlin says. He’s more emotional now because of all that he saw. He’s more compassionate. He’s probably also a better leader, he says. And though he hopes his unit isn’t mobilized again anytime soon, Nowlin says he’s enjoyed his time in the military. “That’s just me, and everybody knows it,” he says.

The U.S. military operates better with individuals such as Nowlin willing to serve, says Palmer of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve committee. School leaders and teachers bring stability to the military, he says, because “they have sets of skills that career military doesn’t have.

“They can walk in and say, ‘I understand your problems.’ You can’t be a good superintendent without having good consensus-building skills,” Palmer says. “You build a better military when you bring those consensus-building skills into the military.”

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer based in Independence, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@comcast.net