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EVERYDAY HEROINE: Being a soldier makes her a better teacher

When Elizabeth Burnham talks about her service in Iraq, she surprises most people with positive stories of rebuilding and goodwill.

Burnham, 41, of Weymouth, is a staff sergeant in the U.S Army Reserves and a fourth-grade teacher at the Dale Street School in Medfield. In April 2003 she was plucked from the classroom and sent to Iraq to work with the Ministry of Education to rebuild its schools and train teachers.

"Being a teacher and a soldier is unique in many ways," said Burnham, adding her soldiering skills have made her a better teacher.

"I try to reinforce daily to my fourth-graders how fortunate we are to live the way we do. I try to help them become the best people they can be - to be great Americans."

Burnham with local children in Bekhal, N. Iraq in 2003. photo courtesy of Elizabeth Burnham

In 2000, Burnham, then 34, joined the reserves. What was initially a financial move to defray her graduate school debt grew into something more.

"It was more than just money for grad school," she said. "It felt like it was the right thing for me - and I never regretted that decision."

Burnham grew up in Hingham and graduated from Hingham High School. She went on to the University of Maine where she earned a bachelor of arts degree. Nine years later, she received her master's degree in teaching from Simmons College. Since grad school, she has taught in Medfield.

In January 2003, Burnham, a member of the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion in Warwick, R.I., was deployed with the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion of New Jersey. Three months later, she was among the first soldiers to arrive in Iraq, when the war began. Burnham worked with the Ministry of Education, trying to get money to rebuild schools and acquire supplies. She visited schools in different villages to assess their needs. At one of her meetings, she convinced authorities to start paying local teachers. Some villages she visited had barely any school supplies - not enough desks, paper or pencils. She was able to get many of the needed supplies through UNICEF and UNESCO.

In the city of Irbil she worked with special forces soldiers on a school project that she described as a "facelift."

"We knocked down walls and made classrooms larger," she said. "We had the entire school painted as well as replacing windows and restoring plumbing. There was a ribbon cutting ceremony for that one."

Burnham said the Iraqi children were curious about her; some wanted to touch her uniform.

"They swarmed around the vehicles almost like a mob. They would not move out of the way. They could be loud calling out 'Mista, Mista,' trying to say Mister as that was very often the only English they knew and used it all the time.

"But they were like children everywhere - they loved to learn and were happy to show you what they knew," Burnham said.

Transitioning back into civilian life was hard, Burnham said. "In Iraq, I didn't go anywhere without my weapon (M-16). I couldn't take off in a vehicle by myself."

In May 2006, Burnham spoke at Hingham's annual Memorial Day celebration.

"She had a unique perspective," said Michael Cunningham, director of Veterans Services in Hingham. "She wasn't in combat but she took a role where she was able to work directly with the Iraqi people."

Often, Cunningham said, people don't see the other side of war.

"People think we're in war to destroy," he said. "But we're also there to fix things and rebuild a country - and Elizabeth has proven that."

Kathy Belmont, Burnham's teaching partner in Medfield for the past 10 years, remembers the day she first saw Burnham after she had returned from Iraq.

"She was at first subdued," Belmont said. "She was reluctant to talk about her experiences.

"It hurt her when people voiced the opinion that we didn't belong there, because she felt strongly committed to her responsibility as a soldier."

Burnham says her biggest challenge since returning from Iraq is the fact "not everybody has my perspective - and I can't expect anybody to.

"I've been there. I saw firsthand what we're doing. Whether or not we should be there isn't the point. The point is we are."

Burnham says she has one year to make up her mind whether to re-enlist.

"It's become a part of who I am," she said.

"I love this country. I don't think I've done anything in my life I'm more proud of. I'm proud to wear that uniform."

By Linda Thomas

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