By Spc. Laura Johnson, MND-B PAOMarch 13, 2009
BAGHDAD- On the last day of school, a teacher stood before his students, knowing it may be the last time he sees most of them. Moving into their next phase of both school and life, he hopes they take with them the lessons learned throughout the year. As the school day ends he leaves them with one piece of information-his door is always open.
"I try to keep up with my former students through emails or blogs," said Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Burke, 211th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, 1st Cavalry Division. "They are like my children," said the former Galena Park Independent School District Teacher of the Year.
The Army Reserve non-commissioned officer from Pearland, Texas never imagined he would reunite with one of his former middle school students under the abnormal conditions of war. A former Leadership Officers Training Corps teacher, he was elated to see his former student in a military uniform, but also distressed about the circumstances that brought them together.
His former student, now Pfc. Johnny Cunningham, a combat engineer assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, from Houston, whom he kept in touch with for nine years, was recently injured when an explosively formed projectile penetrated his Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.
"Had I moved forward just a little, I wouldn't be here," said Cunningham. "It was the angle that we were on that saved us."
Knowing they were located on the same base through previous e-mails and his teacher's promise, Cunningham sent Burke an e-mail a few days later informing him of the details of the incident.
"I froze when I read the e-mail, until I got to the part that said he was OK," said Burke. "I thought to myself, 'I have to find him'."
However, finding Cunningham was a task that wasn't easily accomplished.
"I didn't know his rank, unit or exactly where he was located," said Burke. "It took me some time to find him," said Burke. "His roommate said he was at work, but his first sergeant said he was at his containerized housing unit."
Through several trips and more e-mails, the two were finally able to locate each other and get together
Now wearing an Army Combat Uniform himself and surviving an attack in a combat zone, Cunningham reunited with the teacher who motivated him to join the military.
"I had to see him," said Cunningham. "He is the reason why I joined the military in the first place."
In middle school, Cunningham was a student in a new class taught by Burke. It was in LOTC that he established a love for the values of military life.
"He introduced me to the traditions of the military," said Cunningham. "He taught me drill and ceremonies and the loyalty behind the Army. He loves the military, [LOTC] was a close-knit group and it kind of just stuck with me," added Cunningham. "He taught us about life."
Sitting in the division's dining facility at Camp Liberty, the two reminisced about old classmates, former students and family. The conversation continued through dinner as both of them sat discovering new things about each other.
"He has kids now and is married," said Cunningham. "And I have two, myself. Of course things have changed since we've last seen each other, but I didn't really feel much of a difference with him."
The reunion that would have been derailed by an EFP ended in the late hours of the night with both promising to keep in touch with each other.
"He's somebody I can always talk to" said Cunningham. "We both have a love for the military."
From student to Soldier, teacher to NCO, Cunningham and Burke are proof that lessons learned early in life stick with you. A statement made nine years ago in a middle school classroom shaped a friendship and bond that neither is willing to break. For Burke, his pledge of an open door still stands. And they continue to come back.