January tears were replaced by October smiles welcoming U.S. Marine Lieut. Col. Michael Halt back to West Tisbury on Monday.
Better known as school principal Mr. Halt to 283 students at the school, Mr. Halt was welcomed home with simple heartfelt words by his peers and was serenaded by the student body and by the faculty after an eight-month tour of active duty, including seven and a half months based in Seleucia, Iraq.
Relief and gratitude were the evident emotions among the audience of more than 350 students, faculty, parents and admirers of the thin, soft-spoken principal. One outcome of those feelings may be lots of cookies and homemade pie in the break room. “He’s always been thin but he lost a lot of weight,” said teacher Laurie Serpa as former colleague Madi Coutts nodded her assent.
The politics of war took a backseat at the one-hour assembly. “Michael made a commitment and followed through on it at great sacrifice to him and his family. No one is going to minimize his sacrifice and commitment, regardless of their position on the war,” said another teacher. Several teachers said the lesson of following commitment is a good life lesson for students. “Seeing him come home safely is a positive experience about war. When kids think of war, they first think about death,” Ms. Serpa said.
Mr. Halt’s commitment to teaching also continued throughout his tour, He generated a weekly blog for students to use while tracking his travels, first to a California staging area, then through locations in Iraq. As his unit moved locations, students moved a cardboard cutout of the marine and principal on a four-by-six-foot map created before his deployment by an after-school program directed by Victoria Phillips. The cutout pictured Mr. Halt dressed in a West Tisbury school logo T-shirt.
Being chosen to move the cutout became a desired student honor each week, master of ceremonies and assistant principal Jim Blake said. “It gave us a way to keep track of him during his absence,” Mr. Blake said. Eighth grade student Clara Corjulo and seventh grader Justin Smith moved the cutout figure for the last time on Monday, carefully centering their principal’s figure on the Island.
Mr. Halt was a military advisor to the United States Navy Seabees in Newport, R.I. According to a blog entry Mr. Halt filed from Iraq in May, his unit was activated for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2007 and worked for the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, assigned to the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Camp Fallaugah, Iraq.
Mr. Halt is one of seven Island residents deployed in Iraq in the past year, according to veterans affairs records.
Upon his return early last week, Mr. Halt was given the option of “a week, several weeks, a month, as much time as you need” to get back in the flow of civilian and family life, said Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss. “Michael’s answer was, ‘How about Thursday?’ That’s because he’s a teacher,” Mr. Weiss said.
“I cannot find the words to describe how I feel but I can’t imagine a better place to be in the world than to be back here with my family and all of you,” Mr. Halt said, thanking his family, the school and West Tisbury communities and some people he had never met, for writing. “Your words helped me through some difficult times. They made life so much easier,” he said taking the microphone after an introduction and a standing ovation complete with students waving banners and placards.
Mr. Weiss thanked retired principal Ed Jerome and Dan McCarthy, interim principal, for filling in during Mr. Halt’s absence.
Teachers and parents spoke of constant worry about Mr. Halt’s well being. “It was hard not to think about it,” said Spanish teacher Theresa Holmes. “This is an exciting and emotional day,” she said.
The program included a slide show of student life prepared for Mr. Halt by eighth graders, complete with U2 and Caribbean music, and a faculty rendition of the theme from the 1980s television hit Welcome Back Kotter.
A summary moment came when the entire student body rose to sing a song to welcome their principal back, young voices chorusing: “Welcome home, welcome home/We’ve waited for you so long, so long/Welcome home, welcome home/For that is where you belong.”