When Felix Herrera was growing up in Santa Rosa de Lima, El Salvador, a small town near the Honduran border, he saw dead bodies all the time. During the civil war in the 1980s, he and his friends would run to the graveyard to watch helicopters bring in fresh ones. But when he was 16 and soldiers began trying to recruit him into the army, his mother quickly sent him to Arlington to live with his brothers. She didn't want him fighting in a war.
And yet there he was yesterday, an Army staff sergeant in khaki fatigues and sand-colored boots, strolling through Arlington's Kenmore Middle School, where he taught science and math until the military sent him to Iraq this year.
Felix Herrera says goodbye to student Erika Medrano during a visit to Kenmore Middle School, where he taught before the Army sent him to Iraq.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
Herrera, 33, was in town only for the week, during which he visited the school twice, read to children at Barnes & Noble and attended a debate on the Iraq war at Georgetown University. Today, he flies back to the Middle East.
As he walked down the Kenmore hall, his former students ran up and jumped into his arms. Erika Medrano, a 13-year-old with long brown hair and a plush Winnie-the-Pooh backpack, had tears in her eyes as she grinned up at her old science teacher.
"He was my favorite," she said. "He'd play with us."
She grabbed Herrera's maroon beret from his pocket and put it on his head as she and her friends updated him, in a mix of Spanish and English, on the doings of their classmates.
"She went to see su boyfriend," she said of a girl he asked about.
Herrera frowned at such a young girl having a boyfriend. "Oh, really? That's not good."
Some boys walked by and gaped at his uniform; one saluted. A girl marveled at his shaved head. One teacher, Elaine Powers, hurried up with a photo of her son Joshua Powers, a lieutenant who will leave for Baghdad soon. Another teacher asked what Herrera was doing in Iraq. "Are you working with the community," she joked, "or are you going door-to-door shooting people?"
As a reservist on active duty in the Army's Civil Affairs section, Herrera went to Afghanistan in 2002 and spent 10 months there building clinics and schools. He returned to Arlington to teach for a year, and spent the past four months in Kirkuk, Iraq, helping "rebuild the infrastructure," a job that includes giving seeds to farmers for planting season and securing oil and gas reserves. His unit defends itself from regular mortar attacks, but he is not part of an offensive combat unit, he said.
Still, his friends were shocked to see him join the Army, he said, especially those who knew he had "antiwar feelings" and remembered him as a bearded graduate student getting his master's degree in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University.
"People were confused at why I would want to go into the military after that," he said. But in his mind, there was a logic to it. In fact, one reason he enlisted was to learn how his studies could be applied. "I wanted to see how some of these things played out," he said, adding that he hoped to show people "a positive use" of the military. "I think that people need to be given an opportunity to live peacefully."
After graduating from Washington-Lee High School in 1991, Herrera went to college at George Mason, and he began working as a teaching assistant in Arlington schools in 1992. He received his master's degree in 2000 before joining the reserves. He said it was easier for him to adjust to his first tour in a war zone than it was for many U.S.-born soldiers because he grew up hearing explosions and seeing casualties. Friends he left behind in El Salvador were recruited into the army there, and at least one was killed.
In Kirkuk, he has plenty of opportunity to deal with conflicts. The city is on the border of Iraq's Kurdish area, with almost equal numbers of Kurdish and Arab Iraqis, all of whom have strong opinions on what local language Herrera should learn.
"They're so sensitive," he said. "The Kurds are like, 'Why do you want to learn Arabic?' and the Arabs are like, 'Nah, Kurdish, don't learn Kurdish.' "
After saying his goodbyes at Kenmore, Herrera met his high school history teacher, John W. Englishman, for lunch at a local French deli. The two have been close since Herrera was a teenage illegal immigrant who barely spoke English and held jobs as a busboy and cashier at two restaurants. Now a U.S. citizen, he is applying to law school and hopes to work on human rights issues. He also wants to go back one day to El Salvador to work at the private school his brother owns.
He spent the first half of his two-week leave there, visiting his mother, and found himself answering the same questions he has heard from friends here.
"It's one thing she didn't understand. She and my sister were saying, 'Don't you think it's weird that you left El Salvador because you didn't want to be in the army and now you're in the army?' "
But he sees a difference. In El Salvador, he said, the army was not helping people. In Iraq, he told his mother, "I'm helping people."