Island soldier and educator reflects on tour in Iraq
On Martha's Vineyard and in communities across the country, the men and women who serve in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard Reserves, as well as the Army National Guard and Air National Guard know that at any time, they may have to put civilian life on hold to answer the call to active duty.
That call came in January for West Tisbury School principal Michael Halt, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
Mr. Halt, a military advisor to the U.S. Navy Seabees in the 7th Naval Construction Regiment based in Newport, R.I., received official confirmation that his unit would be activated for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom on Jan. 15.
Mr. Halt had only a short time to prepare his wife, Laurie, and his stepchildren, Cooper, Connor, and Maggie Johnson, as well as the staff and 273 children at West Tisbury School, for his absence.
Colonel Halt checks the defensive perimeter of a government center in downtown Fallujah, the site of a suicide bomber attack in April, to assess what force protection measures should be improved. Photos courtesy of Michael Halt
Mr. Halt reported for duty on Jan. 15, to Port Hueneme, Calif., to work for the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, assigned to the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Camp Fallujah, Iraq. Although he was told he would spend six to seven months helping train Seabees in Port Hueneme, Mr. Halt was deployed with the first group from his unit to go to Iraq in March. The Seabees' missions included building and sustaining combat outposts, providing improved force protection and living conditions for Marines in the field, running combat security escort missions to escort vital supplies throughout western Iraq, and repairing roads.
Mr. Halt said his role was that of a security/personal force protection advisor, working to ensure the safety of Seabees as they rode in convoys and worked on reconstruction projects.
As an educator attuned to "teachable moments," while he was away, Mr. Halt shared his observations of military life, the war, and Iraq with the West Tisbury School community through an Internet web log (blog), which is still posted on the school's web site, www.wtisbury.mv.k12.ma.us).
After Colonel Halt and a convoy security team finished assessing a bridge outside of Baghdad, Iraqi children approached a Marine, looking for candy.
On Sept. 24, Mr. Halt returned home safely to the Vineyard. In an e-mail interview, The Times asked Mr. Halt about military service and his recent experience in Iraq.
What made you pick the Marine Corps?
Maybe I watched too many John Wayne movies as a kid, but as long as I can remember I wanted to be in the military. As I got older and began to learn about the differences in the branches of the service, I got excited about being a Marine. Like many people who join the Marine Corps, I was attracted to the proud history of the Corps. I was also excited about the challenge of being a Marine. Just about anyone can sign up to be in the Army, Navy, or Air Force, but I wanted to see if I had what it takes to earn the title of United States Marine.
In an interview with The Times last January, you said you found that the relationship between an officer and his soldiers is similar to the role of a teacher with his students. You are a professional soldier and a professional educator. How do you integrate both roles?
I have always said that I try to bring a little bit of the Marine Corps to the schoolhouse and a little bit of my teaching philosophy into the Marine Corps and hope that both are helped by this approach. While many people who are unfamiliar with the Marine Corps may see these two important institutions as being as different as day is to night, the similarities are really quite striking.
The Marine Corps prides itself on the relationships that exist between the officers and their Marines. The Marine Corps ensures that all leaders possess the ethos and ethics conducive of a true teacher/scholar relationship. As leaders we strive to set the example, in every endeavor, in which our Marines will follow. The Marine Corps strives to make everything we do a practical training and learning opportunity. We have long known that an intelligent, quick-thinking Marine is significantly more valuable to the Corps and to the Nation than a simple brute that can only follow orders.
A Seabee in Colonel Halt's unit draws a crowd of Iraqi children in a small village in Western Iraq with the gift of bottled water.
Here at school I try to interact with all students and adults in the same professional and respectful manner that is the hallmark of the Corps. But it is far more than professionalism and respect. The Marine Corps long ago taught me what I now see every day at the West Tisbury School: that talented and enthusiastic teachers can help their students achieve goals that may have initially appeared impossible and that the greatest sense of pride truly comes from helping others grow and improve.
Please describe your assignment in Iraq.
I was the Military Advisor to the US Navy Seabees in Iraq. In this role, I was responsible for aiding and advising Navy Engineers who are working alongside the Marines.
Please tell me something about the people you met, Iraqis and your fellow Marines.
The overwhelming majority of the Iraqis I met want basically the same things that everyone else in the world wants: a safe place to raise their families and the chance for their nation to develop into a peaceful and prosperous country.
The sailors and Marines that I was privileged to work with in Iraq were the most inspiring group of people I have ever met. Every day I was impressed by their personal motivation, their selfless devotion to their country and their fellow brothers in arms, and the absolute quality of their character. I have often said, "If you want to see America's youth at their absolute best - go to Iraq."
Would you describe a personally rewarding moment during your tour?
There were a lot of good days and bad days in Iraq. One day that I particularly enjoyed happened this summer when my convoy pulled into a small Iraqi village in Western Al Anbar that didn't get a lot of contact with the coalition forces. The town had about a couple of dozen buildings and a population of less than a hundred. To keep the village safe, the Iraqis had organized a local neighborhood watch. The entrance of the village was guarded by three boys whose age ranged between 10 to 15. As we pulled in, every kid in the village came out to look and wave at us. While I met with the town leaders, the Seabees started passing out some candy to the kids. Candy is always a big draw, but in a small, desert town with limited running water, our bottled water was more popular than candy. The kids flocked to our vehicles to get some of the bottled water we were passing out. When I returned to my vehicle I tossed a teenage boy a cold bottle of water from my cooler. The young Iraqi held the cold bottle to his forehead and said, "I love America."
Most Americans' knowledge of Iraq comes from the news media. Do you think the people back home have an accurate picture of the situation?
I do not believe the news coverage of any complex issue is deep enough to allow most Americans to get a true understanding of what is really happening these days. During the height of the troop surge this spring, the two issues that dominated the news had nothing to do with Iraq or U.S. foreign policy. If you turned on your TV while I was in Iraq, the two big stories that dominated the media dealt with Anna Nicole-Smith and Paris Hilton.
Like Americans across the country, many Vineyarders question our country's continuing involvement in Iraq. What is your reaction to the apparent erosion of public and political support for the war?
I do not think the American public was properly prepared to understand the time, energy, and enormous sacrifice that would be necessary to fight and win the war on terror or the war in Iraq. With that said, it is easy for me to understand how the support for the war in Iraq has eroded. I am thankful that while public support for the war has ebbed, support for our brave warriors has not.
As we enter 2008, what is your assessment of the future of Iraq and U.S. involvement there?
I was truly impressed with the amount of progress we were able to make in Al Anbar during my tour of duty in Iraq. The progress we have recently made was purely visible every time I went out into downtown Fallujah, Ramdi, Haditha, or any of the other areas where the Marines and the Iraqis have been able to truly work together. With that being said, there is still a lot of work that must be done if we want to ensure any lasting stability there.
How important was the support of the Vineyard community? How did you keep in touch with the Vineyard? What sort of questions/comments, if any, did you receive from students?
Is there anything you would like to say to the Vineyard community?
I was fortunate to receive a lot of support from the students and teachers at the West Tisbury School, and from the Vineyard community as a whole the entire time I was deployed. Nothing brightens your day when you are in some faraway place like a letter from home. The kind thoughts and words from everybody back here had a huge impact on me and for that I will forever be thankful.