Army Private First Class (PFC) Andrew Berli, a 2006 Comstock Park High School graduate, is used to going into hostile and uncertain situations while on duty in Iraq, but when entering Lakes Elementary School in Rockford on Wednesday, May 20, Berli was nervous for a whole different reason. He was going to meet his fifth grade pen pals from Sandy Knottnerus’s class to share what his life is like in Iraq.
Knotternus also was a bit on edge explaining, “As a teacher, I worry about guest speakers coming into my classroom. Will the students be polite and respectful? Will the speaker be interesting? What is the speaker’s comfort level in front of a group? Will the PowerPoint work?”
PFC Berli and Knotternus quickly found out neither had reason for concern-the class full of spellbound fifth graders surrounded him with cheers, signs, decorations, hundreds of questions, and even a cake for his 21st birthday. Knotternus said, “All of my worrying was for nothing. When PFC Berli came to visit, nothing could have gone better. In fact, I think my favorite moment was when PFC Andrew Berli was telling my students about the guys on his team. Before long, kids started popping up with, ‘What about Private White? What about Sergeant Forbis? What about Cecil?’ It was then that the bond that had been forming over the year was cemented. PFC Berli knew that we knew them by name and cared deeply about each. This was the moment that I knew how powerful this experience had been for my students, for Team Bonesaw, and for me.”
Knotterus’s students began writing and sending care packages to Berli’s unit last fall, when she learned her student Brennon Shupe was PFC Berli’s nephew. The entire class embraced the idea, parents got on board donating non-perishable items, and soon soldiers and students were communicating and learning about their lives separated by 7,000-plus miles.
One of PFC Berli’s only requests while on leave was to spend time with his pen pals, thanking them for all the letters and care packages. He put together a slide show with photos to share with the students.
As the students sat in a circle around PFC Berli, he explained whenever a care package arrived, he and other guys in the unit would sit down, open the packages together, and read all the letters aloud. “It was so cool to get the packages – the snacks were really appreciated when we are at the COP (combat outpost) for four days at a time.
Then PFC Berli patiently fielded questions – many generated from his photos.
‘What’s it like in Iraq?’ Hot, dry, all sand, very few trees, and no sewer system or clean water supply. It’s also really smelly. In northern Iraq, people live in mud houses and most people in Iraq are very poor. There are lots of stray dogs running lose which you can’t pet for fear of rabies or fleas.
Berli’s unit adopted a dog and a unit member’s family sent vaccinations and a flea collar from the United States. The unit liked the dog because it would chase away all the other stray dogs that came to beg around the tents at night.
‘What’s it like living in a tent in the dessert?’ Very cramped. Twenty guys to a tent, with only a couple of feet of personal space. There is no privacy.
‘Do the people in Iraq like Americans?’ Most are supportive because we are rebuilding their roads, schools, and trying to clean up the cities. Children will mob the unit and beg for candy, pencils, paper or anything a soldier can give them.
‘What is your equipment like?’ PFC Berli showed pictures of the MRAP vehicles they take out on patrol. The sides and bottom are covered in armor and equipped to handle the blast of roadside bombs. Insurgents use cell phones to remotely detonate road side bombs so the top of the truck has antennae to scramble cell phone signals. There also is a guard station on the top of the truck, and an air condition unit on the back to keep the soldiers inside from overheating. The trucks are tippy because of all the equipment.
‘What is it like to go out on patrol?’ The people of Iraq are told to get away from the patrol so they are out of danger in the event of a suicide bombing. They have an interpreter with them while on patrol who knows five different languages spoken throughout the Middle East.
‘What is the technology like?’ PFC Berli pointed to his ID badge on his shirt and said the Army has equipment that can read his name from 15 miles away. This helps them detect insurgents planting IEDs. They also have night vision goggles that help them see in the dark while on patrol.
‘Is it hard coming home?’ PFC Berli loves being back to see family and friends. He misses being able to hunt and hang out with his friends, but he has buddies in his unit in Iraq. He loves the clean air, and couldn’t wait to get off the plane and take his first deep breath.
After fielding questions, sharing pictures, and enjoying pizza and cake, PFC Berli thanked the students and told them how much the unit appreciated their support. “Some of the guys get little or no mail from home as they don’t have family. We always share what you send-it means the world to us.”