November 16, 2011 - Goodrich- It may be difficult for 5-year-olds to understand the concept of war/military duty, but a Reid Elementary kindergarten class understands a little better today, thanks to their teacher and two classmates who have fathers serving.
Front from left, Donata Trowsse, William Hamilton, Jake Campbell, Logan Parks, Vincent Duty and Lilie Alfaro. Middle from left, Marcella Merkel, Hannah Rawlings, Aiden Trussell, Haiden Hall, Brooke Termarsch, Joey Polizzi, Brayden Schaller, Jessica Tanner and Leya Allen. Back from left Will Potvin, Abbey Hanchett, Nolan Webber, Skye Dennison, Ashton Shaver, McKenzie Cabala, Ryen Allen, Robby Lipscomb-Stanley and Taelor Husted. Reid Elementary kindergarten class. Photo by Patrick McAbee.
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Tammy Merkel approached Karen Eickhoff, a long-term Reid substitute teacher for Rachel Renner, in September. Tammy's husband, US Army Command Sgt. Major Bryan Merkel, a member of the Michigan National Guard, was preparing to leave for military training at Camp Shelby, in Hattiesburg, Miss. He will be deploying to Afghanistan soon.
"She wanted to me to be aware of something traumatic happening in her daughter's life," said Eickhoff.
The Merkels have two daughters—Marcella, 5, and Baylee, 13, an eighth grader at Goodrich Middle School. Marcella was not the only child with a military parent in the kindergarten class, however. Hannah Rawlings' stepfather, Army SPC E4 Andrew T. Bergeron, Sr., a 2006 Goodrich High School graduate, has been deployed to Afghanistan for six months.
Eickhoff discussed Veterans Day with her students this month, what soldiers do and the sacrifices their families make. The class wanted to do something special, and they made flag books in which they put stars, as well as wrote letters. They made two giant flags for Bryan Merkel and Andrew Bergeron, using white craft paint to make handprints for the stars, and crayons to color the stripes. Then, as a class, the children talked about what they wanted to say on a giant message that would accompany each flag and decided on the following:
"Thank you for serving and protecting our country. We are proud of you for saving our world. We hope you stay safe and come home soon." Sincerely, Mrs. Renner's Class.
At the bottom of the message, each student wrote their names around "Proud Americans."
"What really touched me was these are the words that they came up with and I wrote down for them," said Eickhoff.
"These are their words, and it's touching because we don't look at war from a child's point of view."
Tammy Merkel and Teri Bergeron, Hannah's mother, are mailing the flags, letters, and booklets to their husbands.
"The kids seem really proud and excited to do something for the dads," Eickhoff said. "I think they connected it to how we say the Pledge of Allegiance and talk about what it is to be Americans. They are getting a lot of positive feedback from other teachers, students and parents and I think that is good for them. I am proud to see them working hard and that they recognize what others are going through."
Bryan Merkel, 39, has been a member of the Michigan National Guard for the last eight years. In civilian life, he is the owner of Merkel Home Improvement. This is his third deployment, his first two tours were in Iraq. As Command Sergeant Major, he leads about 1,000 infantry soldiers.
Tammy Merkel said Marcella remembers the last deployment when she was just 3, and that one was more difficult, because she was unable to process what was happening. Now she has a better concept of time, and understands what her father is doing and is adjusting very well.
Tammy said she helps Marcella understand by relating what he does to a story similar to "The Little Mermaid."
"I tell her there is an evil Ursula and there is King Triton to protect the merpeople," Tammy said. "That helps put things into perspective for her. Dad is King Triton and her knight in shining armor. She is very proud of him and the first to say, 'My Dad is a soldier, my Dad is protecting us.'"
Andrew Bergeron is on his first deployment and has been in Afghanistan since April, where he works as a mechanic. It's been a busy year for the Bergeron family. Teri came to Goodrich with Hannah and daughter Ashlyn Rawlings, 6, and a first grader at Reid, to be close to family after Andrew deployed. On July 8, she gave birth to their son, Andrew T. Bergeron, Jr. Because internet service is not reliable, Andrew Sr. didn't learn of his son's birth until two days later.
Hannah is handling the deployment surprising well.
"At first she was upset, she doesn't understand," said Teri. "I explained to her that he was on a camping trip for work. I don't want to scare her. If she has questions, I try to answer as best I can. Now she asks me every night when he's coming home. My 6-year-old is taking it the hardest, she cries every night for him."
The Bergeron family is counting down the days until Andrew comes home. He gets a two-week leave for Christmas and will arrive Dec. 17. Teri is excited about the present she is giving him— tickets to a Detroit Red Wings game. She also contacted a Red Wings representative, and they are putting together a care package for him that includes an autographed puck from Andrew's favorite player, Nicklas Lidstrom.
Her best gift is just having him home.
"The girls are getting super excited," she said. "The only thing better would be to know he's coming home for good."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville