Monday, March 2, 2009

Teacher, Student Reunite in Warzone

I had a reality check of sorts the day before yesterday. A former student of mine, Pfc. Johnny Cunningham, a combat engineer with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division has kept in touch with me through the years after his graduation from North Shore like many others have. He joined the Army after high school. Back when he was in 7th and 8th grade, he joined a new program that I started at North Shore Middle called LOTC (Leadership Officers Training Corps). It was like JROTC for middle school.
I taught it using Army basics with lessons in D&C for parades/formations, the Army values to build character, learning what leadership and the styles people use when they apply it, how to be a good follower, land navigation and orienteering, platoon team-building activities, armed drill team, unarmed drill team, color guard, and cool field trips to round it out. On the left is my group marching during a pass and review back in 2003. All of those kids are in college now.
Johnny was one of the 1st in that group that had swelled to well over 1000 kids that participated in the program during the seven years that I taught it. He was my first commander for the boys' drill team before drill team was merged into one group.
About a week before we left the states he emailed me telling me he was here at Camp Liberty and he was looking forward to running into me when we got here.
Well, the day before yesterday he emailed me telling me that his vehicle (an MRAP)was attacked, hit with an EFP (explosively formed penetrator). It's a thick, copper cone-shaped plate that is placed on a charge and when fired, melts, forms, and then can penetrate just about anything. When it hits armor, it can turn that into projectiles too because it melts. The vehicle pictured is one version of an MPAP.
So, I'm reading his email and I freeze until I get to the words, "I'm ok." He was the driver and escaped with torn-up fingers and some shrapnel in his leg. His TC (the person commanding the vehicle, right seat) was hit worse and Johnny applied first aid until help arrived. His buddy is still in Germany getting treatment.
So I'm thinking, "I have to see him." Yesterday, I started to track him down. I found where is unit is, even found his room and he wasn't there. I went to his TOC (tactical operations center) and spoke to his First Sergeant. We finally hooked up through Myspace and I told him what building I work in and he took the shuttle here.
It's always a cool thing when one of my former students shows up to say hi. I used to get that often when I taught at Galena Park ISD. Not so much now when I'm at Pasadena ISD...I'm new there teaching 12th grade English. I got that same feeling again as he walked up to me smiling and shouting, "SGT Burke!"
So Cunningham shows up and we go to chow, Spc. Johnson in tow because she's writing about our reunion here in Iraq. He and I exchange stories and he tells me about the attack. Afterwards, I brought him back to his hootch and he showed me the pictures of his vehicle. The damage was extensive. The whole front driver's side dashboard was ripped away and wires were hanging all over the place. The driver's side window (I don't know how thick it is...but it's thick!) was fractured. He pulled out a ziplock bag and showed me a 'souvenir' of copper that had almost killed him and his TC. It weighed about 2 lbs. If he had driven forward just 12 inches, he wouldn't have been able to see me, let alone email me. That molten hot gob of copper would've hit him.
Not many people walk away from an EFP attack. He's a very lucky guy and I'm very proud of him for staying calm and taking care of his TC after the attack. That's what Soldiers do. I remember when he was that little soldier-wannabe joining LOTC and his eyes danced when he was given a rifle and told to learn the 15-count manual of arms.
Sometimes, the world can be very small. Those days teaching LOTC were some of the best in my teaching career. I guess you can say, "If you teach them well, they will come back."

1 comment:

  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.