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Teachers bid students farewell, heading to Iraq

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Two school teachers in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are trading classroom lessons for camouflage clothing.

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  Nikiski Middle-Senior High School teacher Troy Zimmerman stands at the podium in his classroom. Photo by Mark Harrison

The teachers are part-time soldiers in an Alaska Army National Guard unit being called to involuntary active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Ken Felchle poses outside his classroom at Kenai Middle School.

Photo by Mark Harrison

Friday was Ken Felchle and Troy Zimmerman's last day in the classroom for a while. In a few weeks, the two will assemble with fellow guards being called to duty at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, before being assigned to training somewhere in the Lower 48 and ultimately being deployed overseas. The entire process is expected to last up to two years.

All the names of the approximately 130 soldiers being called to activity duty have not yet been released, but less than 10 are residents of the Kenai Peninsula, and some of those are alternates, state military officials said Friday.

Both Felchle and Zimmerman are popular teachers who were getting even more attention than usual at their schools on their last day.

Friday morning, Felchle was honored with a patriotic concert at Kenai Middle School, where he teaches seventh-grade history and outdoor survival.

Staff and students decorated the school and dressed in red, white and blue for the occasion and emotions ran high as the Kenai Central High School marching band played a medley of military and patriotic tunes.

"It was a very cool, emotional moment. There wasn't a dry eye, including mine," said Bill Hatch, a reading and math teacher at KMS.

Since being notified of the call-up more than a week ago, Felchle has been experiencing a few emotions of his own. He said he is concerned about being away from his wife, Kristi, a first-grade teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, and his 4-year-old son, Connor, for much of the time he is on active duty. But he has always known he could be called up at any time.

"You go through a wide variety of emotions, but everyone who serves in the National Guard knows active duty is a possibility, and we're going to serve to the best of our ability," he said.

Felchle said although he and his family will have to make sacrifices, he believes by serving his country he ultimately will help the people of Iraq.

"I truly believe there is a purpose to everything in life. I'm sure there will be something good coming out of this," he said. "I truly believe what we're doing over there for those people will be good for their future."

By coincidence, the date Felchle officially goes on active duty, Sept. 24, will be the 15th anniversary of his enlisting in the Army National Guard.

 

Nikiski Middle-Senior High School teacher Troy Zimmerman stands at the podium in his classroom.

Photo by Mark Harrison

Zimmerman was surrounded by students at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School at lunch Friday. A dozen students told stories about "Mr. Z" as they ate pies and cakes brought as presents.

A couple of the students summoned up how they felt about their Spanish and history teacher.

"He's just the best man ever," Jenni Garrison said.

"And he's a good, respectful role model," Joe Keith added.

Zimmerman returned the compliments. For the past week, he said he's been getting an overwhelming amount of support, such as offers to help his wife, Linda, out with their kids Trey, 9, Takoda, 6, and Tika, 2, while he's gone and lots of sincere well-wishes from the community.

"If I had a dime for every time I heard, 'We'll be praying for you,' I'd be a rich man," he said.

Zimmerman enlisted in the National Guard when he was 17 and has served for 20 years. Like Felchle, Zimmerman's only reservation about active duty is that it will take him away from his family.

"If I were 17 or 18 again and didn't have a family, I'd be excited about this, but where I am in my life, with a family, there's not a bit of excitement," he said.

However, Zimmerman said he is ready to go "without hesitation." He said he has volunteered for two decades as what he calls a "citizen soldier" in order to be called on if needed.

"I think people lose sight of the fact we are a volunteer army. Every one of us has volunteered, and now it's my turn," he said.

Send-off assemblies for Ken Felchle and Troy Zimmerman will be held Thursday at Kenai Middle School and Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, respectively.



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