The duty to serve his country is pulling Richard Ortega out of a Marshalltown classroom and sending him to Afghanistan.
Ortega, 41, a second grade teacher at Woodbury Elementary School, will first head to Gulfport, Miss. Dec. 6 before being deployed to Afghanistan in March.
His students and their families know their teacher is leaving in the middle of the school year and it's not the way Ortega would have preferred it.
T-R PHOTO BY ANDREW POTTER
Elementary School teacher Richard
Ortega helps his students with a pumpkin seed counting activity Friday in his second grade class. Ortega will serve for the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan next year and a substitute will take his place in class.
"Some of them are sad and some don't understand yet," Ortega said of his students.
Ortega will help as an electrician with building projects, some for the U.S. troops, but mostly for the Afghan people as part of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 15.
Ortega previously served in Kuwait for eight months as an electrician for the U.S. Navy Seabees in 2005. The first time he enrolled in the service was to help pay for college, but the second time he felt a calling after the tragedy.
"It was the right thing to do for my country," Ortega said.
Fear is natural for someone in Ortega's situation and he's been pleased with the support of the Marshalltown Community School District, Woodbury Principal Sarah Johnson and his fellow teachers.
"The teachers do worry about me, especially the closer it gets," Ortega said.
The most trepidation comes when he realizes he has to leave his 6-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Cedar Rapids.
"I'll miss her," he said.
Principal Johnson said the Woodbury staff is supportive of his mission, and at the same time, apprehensive since Ortega is going into a war zone.
"I think all of us have a great deal of pride and respect about what he's doing for our country and for us," Johnson said.
Ortega is a native of Texas has been teaching at Woodbury for five years. The school district has hired a long-term substitute, Claudia Jaramillo, to replace Ortega while he serves overseas. Jaramillo is currently teaching kindergarten at Woodbury for a teacher on maternity leave.
Lisa Koester, director of human resources with the school district, said the last teacher to serve overseas and in need of a replacement was Mike Pelick in 2005-06. Pelick retired upon his return home.