A teacher's war story

| 29 Sep 2011 | 09:10

    He dreamed it up, pitched it to superiors and for about six months last year, former Pike County resident Mike Moritz held a battlefront college together in Saddam Hussein’s hometown. The 53-year-old history teacher is home again now, preparing for his nineteenth year at Eldred Central School in Sullivan County, N.Y. Recovering from a leg injury he suffered on the day he arrived in Iraq, Moritz is thinner than the veteran N.J. National Guardsman who got orders for Iraq in March of 2004. But the unprecedented program he set up at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit is still on his mind. Speicher is named after fighter pilot Michael “Scott” Speicher, who was shot down and is still missing after the first Gulf War in 1991. Speicher is a supply depot, air base and truck convoy hub in northern Iraq. A base for some 3,000 Americans, like most military installations there, it’s the target of mortar and rocket attacks on a daily basis. It’s an unlikely place for a college, but Senior Chief Warrant Officer Moritz thought Iraq might need one. A lot of guardsmen are college students, and Moritz heard them voicing concerns about missing a year of school as their 42nd Division prepared to ship out. Moritz was also an associate professor of History at Sullivan County Community College. He wondered if it was possible for the college and SUNY to accredit a satellite program in Iraq. “I started talking to Vern Lindquist, [Liberal Arts chair at the college] and he got the ball rolling from the college’s end,” Moritz said. On the military side, both the Army and National Guard were unanimous. “‘No way’ they said. They were afraid it would distract soldiers from their duties,” said Moritz. But he added, “Young people need something constructive to think about in the middle of a war.” He felt that many of his students would have an opportunity they would not get in civilian life. Three months after arriving in Iraq, the Health and Welfare officer at Speicher, Lt. Col. Aimee Kilmowicz reconsidered the idea and signed the contracts with the college. She sent out an e-mail calling for teachers for “Speicher U.,” as the program became known. She found six, including Moritz. They were all volunteers. Moritz also continued to run the camp mess, which prepared four meals for 8,000 to 15,000 soldiers daily. Classes began. Students were fliers, convoy truckers and escorts who came and went, and so classes were repeated with their schedules. Eldred faculty, Sullivan County Community College and Vietnam Veterans of America all donated supplies. There were no books for students; notes and study sheets were typed and distributed to be carried in uniform pockets. Soldiers came to class with their weapons. “They’d clear (ammunition from) them and put them under the tables.” “I tried to keep it light. The Army is an easy target for humor.” But the war went on and Moritz recalled students in class after losing a buddy in combat. “It’s difficult to hold it together when emotions are that high,” he said. After two months, the Army concluded the idea was good and called in the press, generating a number of newspaper and TV accounts last summer. In June, Moritz learned that he needed surgery to correct his leg injury, but the surgery would not be in Iraq. With students already starting a second semester, Moritz said, “I waited till the semester was over. I though if they show up and someone says the chief went home, it would be demoralizing.” About 125 soldiers earned credits at Speicher U. When the 42nd was rotated out of Iraq, the incoming 101st Division did not pick up the program, so Speicher U. ended. Moritz said other Speicher faculty never got the recognition they should have received. He regrets the end of the program. “I’d do it again, but I don’t know that you’ll ever see it happen again,” he said.