War on Terrorism

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Face of Defense: Defense Department Teachers Deploy

By Megan Rattliff
Department of Defense Education Activity

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1, 2010 – When Brenda Colom first heard news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti that affected as many as 3 million people, she felt compelled to do something.

“Besides giving money, there was nothing else I could do to help those that needed so much,” she said.

It was the earthquake that got Colom, an English teacher with the Department of Defense Education Activity’s schools in Europe, to start thinking about ways to help others. When she received an e-mail from DoDEA headquarters a month later asking for volunteers for the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce to teach English to Afghan soldiers training with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Colom said, she “jumped on the chance.”

Colom explained that she liked the idea of teaching and living in a different country and getting to experience another culture, and she knew this was her way of helping those who really needed it. “The classes are long, but the [students] work hard and do realize that their future and that of their family and country depends on them learning English,” she said.

Tom Wiglesworth, an English teacher from DoDEA’s Guam District, also is in Afghanistan teaching English to Afghan soldiers. Wiglesworth has a history of service with the U.S. military. He joined the Marine Corps in 1973 and later served in the Army Reserve before becoming a combat medic with the National Guard.

Wiglesworth said he’s always considered it his duty to serve his country when and where he could, and that teaching with DoDEA allowed him to continue his military service even after his service with the military was complete. When the opportunity to teach English arose, Wiglesworth said, he was ecstatic to teach in Afghanistan.

Colom, Wiglesworth, and two other DoDEA teachers -- Judith Ryan and Steven Osborne -- went through extensive pre-deployment training. They trained for two months, had to undergo medical exams, physicals, numerous shots, and online training in addition to their two-month training.

Then the teachers were sent to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where they learned the institute’s American Language Course curriculum. From there, they attended a two-week field exercise in Indiana, where they learned military structure in a war zone.

“The training was adequate and profitable in many ways,” Wiglesworth said. “I particularly appreciated the time getting to know the team I would be with while here in the country.”

This DoDEA team deployed in August and will serve on military installations throughout Afghanistan for one year under the mentorship of Pamela Tucker, a teacher from DoDEA’s Japan District, who serves as mobile training team chief. Tucker is a member of the Army Reserve and has experience teaching in a war zone stemming from her deployment to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2003 to 2004.

“Given the opportunity, other educators should take advantage of teaching in an environment like Afghanistan,” Tucker said. “Not only does it allow one to engage in impact teaching, but it helps further the U.S. mission and vision towards global peace and prosperity. It really is a rich experience.”

Each teacher teaches a class of about 30 students daily, and students range from wing commanders, pilots and senior officers to maintenance soldiers, crew chiefs and munitions officers.

Though they must do without many creature comforts during their deployment, the teachers said, the sacrifices are small compared to the satisfaction they get from helping their students who need to learn English to make a career for themselves.

Colom said she taught adults earlier in her career, so teaching English to the Afghan soldiers has been a smooth transition. She expressed admiration for her students’ dedication.

“The respect that they have for their teachers is moving,” she said. “The classes are long, but they work hard and do realize that their future, and that of their family and country, depends on them learning English.”

Wiglesworth echoed Colom’s statements. He noted that most Afghan soldiers have not had an education similar to that of most Americans. Rather, he said, they mainly were taught practical life skills.

“The adults bring a richer, broader range of life experiences,” he said. “However, [having this education] greatly improves their desire to better themselves and instills a great respect for teachers. This, along with their intense integrity and considerate manners, has made working with the Afghan people a real touchstone experience.”

Both Colom and Wiglesworth said their experiences in Afghanistan have been rewarding so far. Wiglesworth recalled an instance in which several Afghan soldiers were disassembling the cells from a battery and cleaning it, and he spoke with a student in a simple conversation about what they were doing. He watched an American mentor beam proudly, he said, as an Afghan airman explained in simple English what the soldiers were doing and the names of several parts of the battery and the tools involved.

In another instance, Wiglesworth said, he spoke with the pilots in his classes and explained an English language miscommunication that occurred in air traffic control.

“[The pilots] had already had the Dari version explained to them, but I was able to teach the simple English involved in their misunderstanding,” he said. “They greatly appreciated having an English teacher walk them through the language and practice the necessary vocabulary and grammar involved with the incident. They are some of the most faithful attendees of the classes.”

As their year in Afghanistan winds down next summer, Tucker and Wiglesworth will have the option to extend their tour for another year. But for now, they said, they are content just knowing they are helping to make a difference in the lives of the Afghan soliders they teach.

“I thank those in DoDEA who afforded me this opportunity, Wiglesworth said. “Risks exist, but they diminish when compared to the value of the service we are providing and the rewarding relationships we are building.”

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