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School says goodbye to a soldier

A Havre Middle School custodian in the Montana Army National Guard who has been called up for duty in Iraq was given a farewell by students today.

Bill Fitzpatrick, 46, a member of the 443rd Quartermaster Company, will join a company shipping out of Kalispell to join the war effort in Iraq. Fitzpatrick, who is married and has three children, will leave Havre on Dec. 3. He will spend three months in Fort Carson, Colo., and then spend a year in Iraq, followed by three more months at Fort Carson.

About 20 guard members from Havre and Chinook were selected as candidates for deployment earlier this month. The Army has refused to say how many of those have actually been selected to go overseas. Fitzpatrick said that as far as he knows, 15 local guard members have been selected.

Fitzpatrick, who will fuel military vehicles, fought back tears this morning as members of the HMS Student Council, flanked by about 35 students who have family members in the military, presented him with a blanket displaying some of Havre's landmarks.

Fitzpatrick told the students gathered in the gymnasium that he had been joking about being called up since he found out, but that the assembly brought it home.

"I'm very emotional because I'm leaving my family and all my friends for a year and a half," he said, adding that all of the students who had family members leaving would be going through the same emotions. "They're going to need help," he told them.

"It's pretty hard to watch it," said custodian Ron Cartwright, 39, as Fitzpatrick received the blanket. "The hardest part's knowing he's leaving his family."

Several students and faculty members were in tears as they left the gym.

After the assembly, Fitzpatrick said he believes he is fighting for freedom and that he is willing to go, but that he's not eager to go.

"Anybody that wants to do it, I guess they're not playing with a full deck of cards," he said.

Fitzpatrick, who has been in the National Guard for more than 20 years, said he will get his job at the school back when he returns.

Tana Tchida, 13, president of the HMS Student Council, said the council found out Monday that Fitzpatrick would be leaving, and organized the assembly for him.

"We thought it would be a nice thing to give him a blanket for keeping warm," Tchida said before the assembly.

"We know him and we'll be thinking about him and how he's doing," said Anni Freier, 14, the Student Council historian.

Nick Stremcha, 14, was one of the students presenting the blanket to Fitzpatrick. After the assembly he said his father, Tony Stremcha, was called up by the National Guard at the same time Fitzpatrick was.

Nick Stremcha said he answered the phone when the call came.

"I told him it was the Army and right then he knew he was going," Stremcha said.

"It's been pretty emotional and everyone's been real sad" in his family, Stremcha said. "Everyone's been having trouble trying to sleep because they're thinking about it."

Connie Peterson, a counselor at Havre Middle School, said she has had several students come to her to talk about family members being called up and sent overseas, and she expects the numbers to continue to rise.

She said she will probably start a support group for students with family members in the military.


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