To Iraq and Back: A Principal’s ‘Awesome Experience’

On Jan. 10, 2003, my world changed forever as the global war on terror took a very personal turn into my life. I received a phone call around 9 that night ordering me to active duty with the U.S. Army. I was to call my team of civil affairs soldiers to alert them of the call-up, knowing full well their families, like mine, would be affected more than any of us could ever be prepared for.

My journey in the military began in 1986 when I entered basic training as a private first class and 10 months later was commissioned to second lieutenant. I wasn’t called on to serve in a war zone until I received orders in 2003. What unfolded over the next 18 months comprises the most amazing period of my life as I experienced so many highs, lows and camaraderie that only brothers in arms truly understand.

A person really finds out a lot about himself and others when he is put in harm’s way. Stressful times don’t create leaders, they expose them.

Transferable Skills
Much of who I am comes from my upbringing from my parents and the experiences that I had while attending school. My dad was the superintendent of the Eldora-New Providence Community Schools in Eldora, Iowa, when I went to school and he instilled in me values that became the core of who I am today—a father of two, a principal of a 420-student elementary school, a soldier and a human being.

I recall the many ways my dad interacted with parents, kids and staff as part of his daily routine. I have incorporated his example of being forever flexible and ready to adjust to so many different and unexpected situations as they arise in a school setting every day. My studies at the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee taught me to be versatile in dealing with anything thrown at me.

These leadership skills served me well during my several months of training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the year I served in Iraq’s Qadasiyah provinces, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. Some decisions had an immediate impact on life or death, both for my own troops as well as the Iraqis with whom I was working. Unfortunately, several friends and comrades did pay the ultimate price, and as I speak to organizations about my war-time experiences I always dedicate my speech to Sgt. Aaron Sissel, a former student of mine in Iowa who was killed in November 2003; Hamood Awad Hakeem, director of education in Diwaniyah; Eman Hassan, my 28-year-old female translator, a brave 3rd-grade teacher who spoke great English; and Fern Holland, women’s rights attorney. All were great individuals with whom I worked closely just trying to make the future a little brighter for Iraqis.

It was an awesome experience to assist people whose educational system had been reduced to almost nothing. As a civil affairs commander in the Army reserves, I worked with Iraqis to bring water, electricity, doors, windows, paint, desks, pencils and paper to school buildings that had been all but destroyed through years of neglect and warfare.

Beyond infrastructure, we also had to rebuild a curriculum, address teacher pay and contract issues and re-establish teacher training for a system of 527 schools and 183,000 students. One day I carried $250,000 to the bank (escorted by armed guards) to supply the payroll for teachers who hadn't been paid in two months. I had the opportunity to sit down with Iraqi educators and the ministry of education to develop new teacher handbooks and revamp the schedule for salary and benefits. It still amazes me I was part of important changes for education in a new Iraq.

Day-to-day difficulty arose when decisions had to be made about whom you could help that day. Iraqis would come to us with all types of needs. They would bring us photos and documents in search of loved ones who had been taken by Saddam Hussein’s security forces years ago, knowing full well they probably had been killed. Desperately hopeful parents would bring us their sick children. Tough dilemmas no amount of training could prepare you for.

Homefront Support
The community support back home in northeastern Wisconsin was incredible. The war became personal for so many people in the small town of Chilton (population 3,800) as their elementary principal went off to war. My superintendent, Steve Patz, and the school board supported me and my family throughout the 1½ years that I was deployed. Their above-and-beyond support made the work I was doing in Iraq easier as my worries about the home front were fewer.

I was honored to serve my country in Iraq. The experience was incredible. My major frustration since returning home in April 2004 has been with American news media coverage that shows only the tragedies of war rather than the phenomenal successes occurring daily. So many positives happened while I was there. Admittedly, the tragic moments do jump out at me, but the majority of my days were upbeat and extremely rewarding.

The Iraqi people with whom I got to deal were hospitable and appreciative and had a great sense of humor despite all they had been through. I believe Iraq one day will be a strong, safe country thanks to the sacrifices of so many. I look forward to watching that happen.

Rich Appel, a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, is principal of Chilton Elementary School, 421 Court St., Chilton, WI 53014. E-mail: