By Robert Cann
Jeff Carovillano's 10th-grade U.S. History class at Manchester Essex Regional High School has been following current events and learning about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yesterday, they were given a firsthand account.
"It was fun, and hard, and sad and exciting. But, it was worth it — for me it was," said Army Spc. Anthony Papandrea of his two tours of duty: 12 months in Afghanistan and 15 months in Iraq.
Papandrea, 21, of Beverly, is the half-brother of Essex sophomore Stephanie Lane. When Carovillano asked his students if any of them had relatives who had served in the wars and might be willing to come to speak to the class, Lane asked Papandrea, who was released from active duty on Feb. 8.
"I just like to inform people of how things are over there," Papandrea said of his decision to speak.
Papandrea told the class that he did "basically, anything and everything" in Iraq; raiding houses, clearing roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices), rapelling from helicopters and jumping out of planes in combat zones were just a few of the tasks he mentioned.
Papandrea said his most memorable experience while serving was the first time he was attacked. He said it was on July 20, 2006. He was in a tower on his base with two other soldiers talking when word came in over the radio that they should expect something, but he didn't know what.
"You know fireworks? You know that big line that goes up before the firework explodes?" Papandrea asked the class of about 20 students. "You see that. But, nothing explodes, and then you're just waiting, and you'll hear boom, and you'll see an explosion somewhere next to you."
It was a mortar attack.
"We got attacked that night. My buddy jumped on top of me — saved my life actually. If I didn't get down, I wouldn't be here today," he said.
The class was told they were allowed to ask any questions they wanted.
"Considering how we've talked about it, I thought it was a great opportunity," Carovillano said to the class before Papandrea arrived.
Sophomore Dylan Parlee asked him if he'd been involved in any firefights.
He said he'd been involved in 15 in Afghanistan and 27 in Iraq. He was stationed in Iraq during the summer of 2007 — when, by his account, and according to U.S. casualty reports, the conflict was at its worst.
He was a 50-caliber machine gunner, strapped into the top of a vehicle with a 6-foot tall, 178-pound gun in his hands.
He said the hot casings from the bullets the size of a hand would fall down his shirt and scald him and the people in the vehicle.
"Your adrenaline's going. You don't know what to do and then everything just seems to get into focus," Papandrea said. "You know exactly what to do."
He said the longest firefight he'd been in had lasted eight hours. He said they usually lasted 10 to 20 minutes.
Papandrea said he's going back to Afghanistan, where he told the class it can reach 40 degrees below zero in the mountains. After leaving active Army duty, he joined the National Guard. When he went to introduce himself to his new unit, he learned they were deploying soon.
He and a friend are the only two in the unit who have been in Afghanistan or Iraq, so they will be leading the training over the coming months.
"The Army helped me out a lot," he said. "So, I decided to give them another six years."
Papandrea told the class that when he left high school he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life. He said he was "just hanging out on the streets being a bad kid."
"I had to make a choice; it was either stay with my friends, who are right now all in jail or dead, or go to the Army," he said. "My motivation was to be a better person."
Papandrea told the students he's now working at Logan International Airport — and he's been accepted to 10 colleges, something he said probably wouldn't have happened before he joined the Army.
Sophomore Adam Jackson asked Papandrea his political views. Papandrea he said he wasn't supposed to discuss them while in uniform, which he was, wearing full camouflage.
However, Papandrea used the image of a young girl to explain how he felt about the war.
"You walk down the street here, you see a little girl outside playing," he said. "It's cold. She has shoes on, she has a shirt on, she has pants. She's taken a bath, probably. Nice and clean."
"Go there (Afghanistan). Little girl. No shoes. It's 20 degrees below zero. No shirt on, no food, no water, dirty. These people are living horribly and we try to do as much as we can for them," he said.
Papandrea talked about going to schools on humanitarian missions to give out pencils. He said he gave away extra pairs of boots, and that his friend's father had sent shoes as a donation. He talked about giving away food and water to people he saw while on missions who were thirsty and hungry.
"We're trained to deal with stuff like that," he said. "They're not, they're just trying to survive."
Robert Cann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org