Sunday, October 02, 2005

Educator-Soldiers: From Classrooms To Camouflage

All over the country, many educators and support staff are serving their fellow citizens in uniform as well as in the classroom. In Bossier City, Louisiana, there are several who have stepped-up to the challenge in this time of need:
For 20 years, Cheryl Vowell has mixed camouflage into her life of calculators and compasses. But the geometry teacher at Airline High School in Bossier City is putting on a military uniform full time since Hurricane Katrina crashed into south Louisiana.

Vowell was called to duty, or "activated" in military speak, to help with recovery first in New Orleans, then in Shreveport-Bossier City shelters and her unit's headquarters.

She's a sergeant first class with the 156th Army Band of the Louisiana National Guard and has served for 28 years. Yet Vowell said this is the first time she's had to leave her classes behind.

"I miss it when I'm not doing it; I miss it now," said Vowell, who plays flute and piccolo and leads the rhythm group in the band. "I've got a really big, wide stripe of red, white and blue in my veins. And if you talk to my students, they'll tell you 'Oh yeah, she's patriotic.'"

So far this school year, five Bossier schools employees -- four teachers and a custodian -- are serving active military duty, said Bill Tynes, the system's personnel director. The district doesn't track the total number of enlisted employees, he said. Each of the employees has 15 days of military leave per year in addition to vacation days and is guaranteed a job on return.

"It's just part of the job," said husband Barry Vowell, band director at Airline High who retired from the National Guard two years ago after 26 years of service. "When we raised our right hand, we knew there was a possibility of us being called up."

Meanwhile, Vowell is working long days doing security and administrative duties and whatever else is asked of her. Her husband, Barry, and her two sons, both students at Airline High, see her when she comes home to grab a bite to eat or to sleep, her husband said.

Vowell is unsure when she'll be able to return to class but said she'll be ready for it. "I look forward to (going back to school) because I figure when I'm ready to go back, then all these folks will have found places to live. And that means that we're not needed anymore."
The school system continues paying the military employees' benefits and, if they are earning less from the military than they did at school, the difference between the employees' military and school salaries.

Unlike the good folks of the Bossier City public school system, our own mid-sized school district in California's "Imperial" Valley does not pay benefits or make up the difference in salary.

One of my teaching colleagues served in the Reserves and was called-up to active-duty in The First Gulf War. She very nearly ended up losing her house due to the fact that her military pay was so much lower than her teaching salary. In fact, she had to get several loans to make ends meet until she was able to resume her classroom duties.

This teacher, who had served honorably in Desert Storm, did not reenlist in the Reserves, as certain comments by district administrators about her service having "disrupted" her student's school year had made her feel "uncomfortable," and she could not afford to risk losing her home again.

Those who put their lives on the line as citizen soldiers in times of emergency should not have to make a financial sacrifice for doing so.

I firmly believe that employers should be required to make up the difference in pay between their civilian jobs and military pay. Up to a reasonable amount, (to be set by law) businesses could recieve a 100% tax credit so that doing the right thing wouldn't also be a costly thing for their employees who are serving in the National Guard and Reserve.

To all the educators serving their country in uniform throughout the world during these troubled times, as well as those who wait for their loved-ones to come home, we humbly offer our Red Apple Salute.

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