West Tisbury principal called up
Lt. Col. Mike Halt to serve a tour in Iraq
West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR), has been called up for active duty and will be posted to Port Hueneme, Calif., on Jan. 15, and then to a tour in Iraq.
"My plan is to address the school staff today," Mr. Halt said yesterday, "and begin the process of talking with the kids in an age-appropriate manner over the next two days." The principal got official confirmation of his mobilization Tuesday night.
In a letter to parents sent home with students yesterday, Mr. Halt wrote, "...it saddens me to tell you that Friday, January 12, 2007, will be my last day at work at the West Tisbury School, until I am released from active duty following the completion of my tour of duty in Iraq."
Michael Halt. MV Times file photo
Mr. Halt, along with superintendent of public schools James Weiss, met with the school staff yesterday afternoon to announce the news.
"We're concerned for Michael and his safety, since he's entering something that is not necessarily a safe situation," Mr. Weiss said. "It's fortunate he'll be in training in California for a while, because it's a cause for concern for everyone about him going on to Iraq. The staff was clearly concerned for him, and also his family and themselves in his absence."
Mr. Weiss said he is looking at a number of possibilities to find an interim leadership team, and hopes to finalize his plans by tomorrow, or Monday at the latest. He also informed the Up-Island Regional School District school committee about Mr. Halt's upcoming absence yesterday.
As a reservist, Mr. Halt serves as a military advisor to the U.S. Navy Seabees, who perform construction work for the military, in the 7th Naval Construction Regiment based in Newport, R.I.
He will be posted to the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, Calif., which provides training and mobilization requirements for four active duty Seabee battalions and more than 16 reserve Seabee units.
Mr. Halt will work with Seabees in Port Hueneme for six to seven months, and then he and they will be deployed to Iraq, stationed out of Camp Fallujah for another six to seven months. The Seabees' mission in Iraq ranges from building combat outposts to doing infrastructure repair in Iraqi cities.
Although Mr. Halt received a warning order earlier in the month telling him his recall was possible, he said that sometimes, after receiving such alerts, no further action results. "This is not the first time I've been given a heads-up," he said. "I had a warning order to be ready to go down to Gulfport after Hurricane Katrina, and had my bags packed and ready to go for quite a while after that, and never got any orders."
Mr. Halt has served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 19 years. As a reservist, he stands ready to serve and lives with the possibility of being called up at any time. His first mobilization occurred shortly after the events of 9/11. His unit was one of the first to be called up, and he was posted to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for 13 months.
"The warning letter is sort of a heads-up," Mr. Halt explained. "The military tries to notify everybody to give them enough time to prepare their families."
When the most recent warning order arrived, the 42-year-old principal said he informed Mr. Weiss about the possibility of an imminent second mobilization and they put together some contingency plans.
"We're trying to ensure there will be a smooth transition for whomever will be my replacement," Mr. Halt said. Mr. Weiss will make a decision on who will serve as acting principal soon.
Drawing an analogy from a well-known children's book, Mr. Halt said yesterday he did not want to act like Chicken Little, the character that runs around falsely alarming everyone the sky is falling. "I waited to notify the staff until I received official notification, because their number one job is taking care of the kids and not worrying about what I'm doing," he said.
Asked about the message he intended to convey to the faculty at yesterday's meeting, Mr. Halt said, "I want to let them know, and I want to reassure everybody, I am coming back, that this is the job I love."
Adding that he does not want anyone thinking he has a conflict of loyalties, Mr. Halt said he left active duty in the Marine Corps after five years because he wanted to make a career in education. He was hired as principal at West Tisbury School in September 1994.
"I love being at the West Tisbury School and look forward to coming back as soon as I can, back to my family, this Island, and this school," he emphasized.
Mr. Halt said he is confident the school is moving in a great direction. "I have been working with the staff, and I know they will continue to do good work in my absence," he reflected. "They know what my intent is for the next year to year and a half, and they will be able to move forward in that direction whether I'm here or not."
Hired at the same time as Mr. Halt, Chilmark School principal Diane Gandy has enjoyed their professional camaraderie as administrators of the two up-Island schools. "We're a district, and I certainly want to let everyone know we are there to support in any way we can," Ms. Gandy said. "He'll truly be missed. We'll all be thinking about him and keeping him in our prayers and thoughts, and his family as well."
West Tisbury principal Michael Halt talks to a student in a classroom early in his tenure at the school. MV Times file photo
Ms. Gandy praised Mr. Halt for his leadership in bringing cohesiveness to the staff. "I know it won't be easy for him to leave, because he loves what he's doing, and he's really committed to the children and the staff," she said. "I don't think they'll disappoint him. He has a great support group at the school, and I think folks are going to rally around and rise to the occasion. After all, they still have a job to do, and it's about the students."
Mr. Halt said his formal orders should arrive soon. Right now, he does not know what day the USMCR will fly him out to California for his Jan. 15 posting. "My intent is to continuing working until I leave," he said.
Although Mr. Halt has never been to Iraq, as a veteran of the first Gulf War, he is familiar with desert conditions. He spent some time in prior service in Omar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt.
Mr. Halt said his second mobilization is proving harder for his family this time around. His wife Laurie teaches history at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, where their sons Cooper Johnson, 17, and Connor Johnson, 16, attend. Their daughter Maggie Johnson, 13, attends Tisbury School.
However, the availability of the Internet and cell phones makes staying in touch easier for today's servicemen and their families, Mr. Halt said. "Things have improved quite a bit. As a young lieutenant in the first Gulf War, I was overseas for seven months, and had the chance to make one phone call and take three showers during that time."
Once on active duty, Mr. Halt said he hopes to have the opportunity to take a few days' leave to visit his family before he heads out of California to Iraq.