Sailor visits schoolchildren

FALLON - "He's here, he's here," the kids whispered as they scuttled back to their desks Thursday morning, anxiously awaiting their visitor - a returning serviceman from Afghanistan.

Paul Wenzel entered Natalie Lane's fourth and fifth grade classroom at West End Elementary to meet the children who have been writing to him while he was deployed to Afghanistan.

"It's good to know y'all are rooting for us," Wenzel told the students. "It's good to be back."

The 24-year-old sailor, stationed at NAS Fallon, is a Master at Arms, 3rd class petty officer. Wenzel has been in the Navy for five years and volunteered to deploy to a war zone last year as an Individual Augmentee, meaning he volunteered to serve alongside Army personnel and was deployed individually.

"I wanted to do something more for my country," Wenzel said. "The duty was there, so I answered the call."

He was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., in January 2007 for three months of intense training before shipping out to Afghanistan in late March 2007.

Wenzel and his unit were called the Police Training Advisory Team and were tasked with training young Afghan National Police forces. In that country, all young men must either join the military or the national police force when they reach adulthood. He said it's a new policy the country is implementing.

While sharing photos from his deployment, he told the students about the landscape, weather, culture and hardships he experienced in Afghanistan.

He said he imagined the Afghan desert to look similarly barren like the Nevada desert but was surprised to find places that reminded him more of Lake Tahoe.

The Afghan response to U.S. forces in their city was mixed, Wenzel said. American soldiers bring candy to give to the children and food for the elders and are usually treated well. However, he said, some Afghanis did spit at the soldiers and threw rocks at them.

"It definitely opened my eyes to how their culture works," Wenzel said. "Things that we take for granted, something as simple as a stuffed animal, would change a child's whole year. Just the look on their face was worth it."

Students in Lane's classroom wrote letters and sent a care package to Wenzel at Christmas time. Joy Bergreen-Steiger, a sign language interpreter in Lane's class, is family friends with Wenzel's wife. Bergreen-Steiger got the class involved and was pleased at their enthusiasm.

She said one girl wrote a Christmas card simply addressed "To any girl soldier."

Lane said the students also participated in the Maine Street light pole decorating at Christmas time and made painted handprints with messages of hope written on the back - messages like "we want to see our soldiers home."

"This is a caring group," Lane said.

The curious students peppered Wenzel with questions after his slide show presentation. They were curious about the weapons he used, if anyone got frostbite (they didn't), and how the soldiers celebrated their birthdays over there. One picture showing heavy artillery exploding in a fiery blast drew many comments from the children.

Wenzel said his last mission of the 378 missions he completed in Afghanistan took place in February. A helicopter dropped the unit on the northeast border of Afghanistan in -13 degree weather with snow up to their hips.

He said they walked 2.5 miles from the landing point to the camp where they stayed a few days.

Wenzel showed a picture of an Afghan police unit in formation, flanked by American soldiers - the first class his unit graduated.

"It was a very proud moment," Wenzel said. "To be a part of teaching these people to help their country is a good feeling."

He said most of the time, the enemy would engage the American forces when the temperatures rose above 100 degrees and retreat when the temperatures dropped.

"It was hot but fun," Wenzel said. "Everybody's just trying to live and make a better life for themselves. It was a good experience."

The class treated their guest to a cake and presented him with a big card signed by all the students.

The last question of the day posed to Wenzel was what he missed the most while being away.

The answer - his wife Megan.

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