What are the similarities between leading soldiers in the field and students in the classroom?
Bryan Santschi would know. A 25-year-old environmental science teacher at Buckeye Valley High School, he paid for his college degree by enrolling in the officer training program for the U.S. Army National Guard.
He sees the parallels.
To get through to his students, he needs to first gain their respect. Similarly to how he approaches soldiers under his command, that means getting to know them and learning about their personalities and interests.
The students, particularly the older ones, aren’t that much different in age than his soldiers, and are dealing with some of the same personal issues: girls, immaturity, drama, etc.
“They’re young, trying to figures themselves out,” not unlike high school students, he said.
The main difference: unlike a bored student who might rather be texting their friends than learning geology, most soldiers appreciate the fact that what Santschi has to say could be the difference between life and death.
Santschi will have a chance to put his leadership to the test soon. This Tuesday, along with his Marion-based unit, he is deploying for a final round of training in Mississippi before his ultimate destination: Afghanistan, where he will serve a one-year term.
His unit, the Alpha Battery 1-134th Field Artillery Regiment, has been re-trained for infantry duty. Santschi will escort supply convoys through the mountains of Afghanistan, watching out for the enemy or other perils.
Practical and plain-spoken, Santschi doesn’t mince words when the subject comes up. He could be hurt there. Or worse.
“It’s something that you think about. It’s definitely a possibility. I could lose a limb. It’s not uncommon to get hit by an I.E.D. (improvised explosive device). It’s definitely a possibility that crosses my mind,” he said.
He and his 25-year-old wife, Jenna, have discussed the morbid subject. He has taken the legal steps so that their farm equipment will get transferred to her in the event of his death, rather than getting tied up in court. His farming friends have said they would see to that everything is taken care of.
But the Santschis are focusing more on Bryan’s eventual return, and what that will mean for their marriage.
“It’s going to be hard, but good,” said Jenna. “We know God turns everything for the good.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Bryan Santschi was a sophomore at Buckeye Valley High School. His memories of the event are similar to those of other students. He was walking in the hall when a friend told him two planes had hit skyscrapers in New York City.
He remembers his classmates making jokes over the TV broadcast.
“I stood up and said, ‘Do you realize that people here at BV are probably going to join the military and leave here to go over there?” he said.
The tragedy impacted him, and he plans to carry it with him to Afghanistan.
“Every generation has a war going on. And this is ours. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines for my generation’s battle,” he said.
Allan Santschi, 60, was in the United States Marine Corps from 1969 to 1971. He remembers his son wearing his uniform for Halloween as a five-year-old. Jeannie Hall, who taught with Bryan’s mother, Justine Santschi at Buckeye Valley West Elementary, remembers an 8-year-old Bryan drawing pictures of soldiers in school.
So when Bryan tried to enroll at West Point after high school, it didn’t surprise anyone. But he didn’t qualify because of a medical issue.
But in 2005, he was accepted into the ROTC program at Capital University. He intentionally signed up for combat arms, knowing it could place him in danger. He met Jenna at school and married her following a short engagement. Their wedding was in May 2008, just days after they graduated.
Santschi studied science because he likes to figure things out and work with his hands. A big part of his decision to become a teacher, besides the fact that he grew up watching his mom do it, was that it left him summers off, freeing him up to work on the family farm.
So the summer after he graduated, Santschi got a job at Buckeye Valley, and took over his late grandfather’s farm outside Marion to grow soybeans, corn and wheat. He enjoys welding and working on machinery in a two-story white barn there.
While he appreciates the concern, he gets frustrated that people who know him treat his deployment as some kind of tragedy. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan, the birthplace of 9/11 in many ways, he said.
“What pisses me off the most is people saying ‘I’m sorry. Maybe you won’t have to go. Maybe it will end.’ I want to go. I could have been a combat engineer, but I wanted to be boots on the ground. I signed up to be a warrior, and I want to be treated like one, not a victim,” he said.
So, he will trade the business casual of a teacher, the faded jeans and John Deere hat of a farmer, for military fatigues. And he’ll trade the rolling hills that surround his farm for the mile-high altitudes of Afghanistan.
Like many military families, his parents, who live in Radnor, feel equal parts concern and pride. They and other family members plan to attend a call of duty ceremony in Marion Sunday where Santschi and his unit will be sent off.
“I’ve known this in my heart for a long time that he was going to go. I just have to have faith,” Justine Santschi, now a 4th and 5th grade math teacher at Buckeye Valley North Elementary, said of her son. “He’s a smart kid. He’s going to protect those that he’s with. I’m very proud of him and that he’s going to serve our country.”