Rebuilding a country takes all kinds of people -- veterinarians, lawyers, teachers.
Students across Loudoun County have learned that this year in a steady stream of e-mails from Doug Dillon, a social studies teacher at Harper Park Middle School and captain in the Army Reserve.
Dillon has spent all of this school year working to rebuild Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. In e-mails to students and teachers, he has written about the different kinds of people who serve with the Reserve and leave behind their regular lives when the Army calls.
"It surprised me that he's a teacher. I look at a teacher, I don't see them holding a gun," said Nathan Rathjen, a ninth-grader at Harmony Intermediate School in Hamilton and one of several students who has been sending care packages to Dillon and his fellow soldiers as a school community service project.
But in digital photo after photo that Dillon has sent back, there he is, wearing Army fatigues and toting a big gun. He is also pictured in fields of crops and standing with Afghan children. Dillon's job with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion is to help reestablish electricity, bring in medicine and jump-start education.
When they think about those things, the students said, a teacher-soldier doesn't seem odd at all.
"I think he's one of those people who likes to help out," said Lauren Arthur, also in the ninth grade. "He's a teacher."
Dillon joined the Reserve right after college and has served for more than a decade. He has taught in Loudoun for seven years, starting at Sanders Corner Elementary School in Ashburn before moving to Harper Park in Leesburg.
Looking through Dillon's e-mails and photos, students have been surprised by other things. They said they didn't expect the soldiers in Afghanistan to have access to e-mail. They learned that the soldiers can watch DVDs and have tried to include a few choice titles in their care packages.
They said they were shocked to learn that Dillon has actually enjoyed Army and local food. They were surprised, too, to see photos of Dillon in snowy mountain passes.
"It's not as I imagined at all," Rathjen said. "I imagined it more like a desert."
Claudia H. Bolen, Harper Park's principal, said it is in Dillon's nature to keep teaching, even while on leave from his classroom. Through him, students have learned a great deal about Afghanistan, not just about the war but also about the devastation that wars wreak on cultures, she said.
"He did not go to Afghanistan to provide an experience for his children, but he takes his responsibility as an educator very seriously," she said. "He's using every life experience he has to share with his students."
The community has rallied around Dillon. At Harper Park, students click on the school's Web site to find frequent updates about him. They sent him care packages once in the fall and plan to do so again soon.
Even students who have never met Dillon have been working to show support for a Loudoun teacher in uniform.
Joylyn Hannahs, who became close with Dillon when she taught at Harper Park, organized Harmony's effort. By last month, students and teachers there had collected 15 boxes, each with about 25 pounds of supplies to be distributed to different squads under Dillon's command.
Each box contained individually wrapped food items and such toiletry items as toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo. Hannahs said she also tried to make sure that the boxes had treats, such as Silly String, magazines and a DVD. One box was intended just for Dillon; another was designated the "ladies box," for female soldiers with whom he serves. In that, she said, they included extra nice smelling items and toilet paper.
Now, the project has been almost entirely taken over by students, including Rathjen and Arthur, who continue to gather supplies, going door-to-door asking for donations from neighbors and collecting from area elementary schools. They hope to mail a few boxes each Friday for the rest of the school year.
The project began long before the start of the war in Iraq, but Hannahs said it has tapped the community's natural impulse to support soldiers in wartime. Because of security concerns, the military no longer allows civilians to send packages to anonymous soldiers. Sending packages to Dillon and his unit gives the community the name and address necessary to make sure that their goods reach the hands of soldiers.
"People want to know what to do, but they don't have contacts," she said. "This is a contact, and they know exactly where it's going. It's going to a teacher."
Dillon has said he hopes to be back in the classroom next year, Bolen said. She has already e-mailed him documents about the school's transition to the block schedule, and she said he e-mails her frequently to discuss instructional issues.
"He wants to know what's going on here, what the plans are, what the timelines are, where his room will be," she said. "He's planning for next year."