By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Nearly 60 first-graders gathered in a Highland Park Early Primary School classroom this morning to listen to a soldier who had returned from Iraq in December.
They also threw him a surprise party.
"We're going to have a party? All right!" Army National Guard Sgt. Kevin Buerkle said.
Before the cookies and Rice Crispie treats were served, Buerkle gave a talk. He emphasized the differences between Iraq and Montana, including the climate, the kinds of houses people live in, and the different culture in the Middle East.
"Be glad you get to go to school," Buerkle told the students. "Some kids in Iraq don't get to go to school."
Buerkle, who was deployed with the 639th Quartermaster Company in December 2003, came back to Havre on Dec. 21 on emergency leave, said his wife, Darcey Buerkle. Because the company is scheduled to demobilize in the next few months, Kevin Buerkle is serving in Havre and won't have to return to Iraq.
First-grade teacher Ilene St. Marks' class held the surprise party for Buerkle. The first-grade classes of Danelle Bakke and Aubrie Kallenberger also came to the party.
Buerkle told the assembled students about conditions in Iraq, including watching out for 3- to 4-inch-long camel spiders.
"They're not poisonous, but they do bite," he said. "The bites really hurt a lot."
He showed a photograph of the spiders, causing some students to gasp. He showed some of the equipment he used in Iraq, including a canteen. With temperatures well over 100 degrees, drinking water in the desert is very important, he said.
Students from Highland Park school had sent cards, letters and care packages to the soldiers in Iraq, including Buerkle. Darcey Buerkle works at Highland Park as a paraprofessional.
Kevin Buerkle said the soldiers greatly appreciate the calls, letters and packages they get.
While showing the students an album of photos from Iraq his wife had made, he said it wasn't all Army duty in Iraq.
"We even got to barbecue over there. There's me eating a steak," Buerkle said. "It wasn't all work."
St. Marks' students gave Buerkle posters each had made with a picture showing what freedom meant to them. The pictures ranged from playing video games to playing in the park, riding a bike and standing under an American flag.
The students also gave him cards they had made. Some read the message in the cards to the class before Buerkle arrived.
"You are freedom," Gered Archuleta read from his card.
Darcey Buerkle said she and Teresa Buerkle, the couple's daughter, are excited and glad to have him back.
"It's just like he never left," Darcey Buerkle said. "Things just picked up where he left off."
She said she kept herself busy while her husband was away, which helped keep her mind off his absence.
"He was expecting me to pick up the pieces. I had to learn how to do the job on my own, know how to fix things, be the repairwoman," she said.
She said she and their daughter waited for his calls, and let him know things were all right at home. Other than that, she focused on every day gone by as being another day closer to him being home, she said.
"The more you dwell on it, the worse it will be," Buerkle said.