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Teacher deployed to Afghanistan

Students in Jeff Schroeder's first grade class learned a real life civics and geography lesson this year.

When the youngsters returned from Christmas break in January, they found out their beloved teacher would soon leave for an 18-month military deployment to Afghanistan.

Schroeder, a captain in the Minnesota Army National Guard, knew he'd be deployed overseas eventually.

He just didn't expect it to happen until later this year, however.

In the days leading up to his departure from his teaching job, Schroeder used many "teachable moments" to prepare his students.

"My goal was to be so matter of fact about it," said Schroeder, who was home on leave in late May prior to being shipped off to Afghanistan. "I gave it a lot of thought."

He sent a letter home to parents about his mid-year departure. Schroeder would often use a map to show students where he was heading. During sharing time, students were also able to ask questions and share their feelings about their teacher's deployment.

"They heard me say it enough times, and we talked about it in so many different ways, that they weren't shocked by it," he said. "They were ready for it."

Schroeder was given a hero's send-off at West Elementary at the end of February. Fellow teachers and students were involved in the emotional goodbye.

"That was a wonderful highlight," Schroeder recalled. "There was a whole range of emotions there. Some kids were crying profusely. I gave them a hug and let them know it's OK. I didn't know if I was going to be able to get up to speak."

Schroeder did address the crowd and presented an American flag, given to him by his grandfather, to the school. The flag will be on display during the 18 months the teacher is gone.

"I tried to share information in a way the kids could understand," he said. "We told them how I was going to be gone for a long time. My first graders will be starting third grade by the time I get back."

Schroeder is being assigned to the Afghan National Army as an embedded trainer. He will work with that country's nationals to teach them military tactics.

"I'll be assigned as a mentor or advisor," he said. "Our role is to help the citizens there who are trying to develop a democracy. It's a very important role and a very challenging role."

For the past three months, Schroeder has been training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi with other soldiers who will have a similar assignment in Afghanistan.

While he understands the dangers involved with the job, Schroeder said he stands ready to serve and help.

"Freedom isn't free," he said. "I'm one of those individuals, along with many others, that have chosen to help do what is called of them. I know what my job is and I'll do my best with it."

Schroeder said he's convinced that the military's mission will be a success in the long run, and he's glad to play a part in it.

"I'm trusting and relying a lot in my faith through Jesus," he said. "And I want to be one who helps people obtain the freedom that is a right for all individuals."

Schroeder was thankful he was able to return home for a 10-day leave before heading overseas.

He stopped by West Elementary one day to say hello to the kids.

"I was in uniform because I wanted the kids to know that I wasn't back yet," he said. "I read a book to the kids written by someone who had been through a deployment called 'A Very Long Time.' It did a nice job of explaining it."

While the students had a snack, Schroeder held a "Santa Claus time" so each child could sit in his lap and share their plans for the summer.

"Then I gave them a final hug and sent them back to work," he said.

Schroeder has been corresponding with his students on a regular basis during his training period. Students have written letters back to him as well.

"I wrote back to each kid so they each had their own letter," he said. "In their letters, I can tell the students have adapted very well to the situation, and not have a fear."

Schroeder hopes to keep West Elementary students updated through some sort of correspondence in the future, but there's no guarantee that he'll have that opportunity.

"We'll see what happens," he said.

West Elementary students also hope to make a difference in Afghanistan. Students donated school supplies, which will be shipped to Schroeder who will help outfit a new school that is being started in a tent.

Schroeder's deployment has the greatest impact on his family, who is forced to cope without a father/husband for an extended period of time.

Schroeder and his wife, Nancy, have two children: Colin a third-grader, and Emily a seventh-grader.

"The busier we are the faster the time has gone," Nancy said.

"A lot of people have come up and offered to help in any way they can. The neighbors have been wonderful, too."

First Lutheran Church, where Nancy works, has been very supportive as well.