Principal Rich Appel Finds Army Training in Iraq Informs Job at Home

Rich AppelWhen asked if his training in the Army Reserve influenced his initial years working in schools, Rich Appel answers without hesitation: “One hundred percent.”

Appel, the 2014 Wisconsin Principal of the Year, has an unconventional leadership resume: In addition to nearly two decades working as a principal at the elementary and middle school level, he served 24 years in the military before retiring as a commanding officer with the U.S. Army.

Appel joined the Army Reserves in 1986. He saw combat, serving 15 months in Iraq in 2003-2004, where his degrees in education and administration informed his work with the minister of education in Baghdad. Appel also served nine months in Northern Africa.

During his years in the Army, he also worked as a teacher and led two schools as principal. He is currently principal of Chilton Middle School in Chilton, Wisconsin.

Perspective and gratitude

“I think my military training has prepared me for when a crisis comes up and actually occurs, which they do, on occasion, at school. You keep a very level head and you don’t allow yourself to get caught up in all the emotions and elevated anxieties that take place when a crisis occurs,” says Appel.

In Iraq, Appel had to deal with life-or-death situations. During his first month back in the U.S. in 2004, some of his students were in a bus accident, and the situation quickly began to escalate. Apple kept his focus on what was happening, and stuck to the steps. “No. 1, keep all kids safe. No. 2, communicate to parents and make sure that everyone is informed that needs to be informed. No. 3, communicate tactfully to everybody what has truly occurred,” he says.

While Appel did not let his emotions dictate his actions in the moment, he did allow them to come out later. “I was able to stay focused on what we had to deal with and then take care of people and get the information communicated out smartly.”

Iraqi schools

When Appel was in Iraq, his own son was in kindergarten and first grade. His son’s class graduated high school last year, but they all remember when Appel called them on a satellite phone on Veterans Day to say hello. Every month during his 2003-2004 tour of duty, the town’s local newspaper published a letter from Appel.

“They knew a little bit more about the sacrifices. When I came back I spoke to all of the kids about what we were doing and what it’s all about,” he says.

Appel’s American students were keen to learn about the conditions for Iraqi schoolchildren.

“In Iraq, kids were going to schools that were run down. They didn’t have any windows, they had nothing. And they were also being attacked. There were IEDS [improvised explosive devices]. These kids still got up every day and went to school,” he says.

“In our situation, we’re blessed to be in a country where it’s safe relatively, and kids come to a warm or a cool place, they get fed, they have great teachers. Educated teachers. They’ve got good curriculum. I tell them how blessed and fortunate we are to be here because they have not had to see those situations.

“We all have our own situations that we’re dealing with in each school. I think that perspective kept my staff and others around me appreciating the gifts and the blessings we have rather than worrying about the things that we can’t control.”

Appel’s Iraqi translator emigrated to the U.S. and recently spoke with his students.

“It was the most powerful day. He could tell them what it’s like being a student in Iraq, and what happened when we came through, and what changes have been made.”

Appel’s students asked about a typical school day in Iraq. “He told them that compared to this school, they didn’t have much electricity. It would be intermittent depending on whether the power grid was on for them or not. Running water was limited in most places. There’s a lot of kidnapping and rape … so they had armed guards at every school.”

Curriculum questions led to finding common ground. “We have the same classes. We have math. We have history.” Then the Wisconsin kids asked about the heat. “The temperatures would get up to 120, 130 degrees, and none of the places had air-conditioning.”

Student interest in the military

Appel has long served on a Senate committee to help choose academy selectees for West Point. Some kids express an interest in the military in elementary and middle school, and then seek Appel out in high school when it comes time to decide.

“The military is not for everybody. I’ve spoken with kids all along about [how] you really need to think about a career that you can stand up in and make a change for others, and lead people because you’ve got that natural skill,” says Appel.

“Very interested kids ask me about my training. I talk about my candidate school experience down at Fort Benning — how you’re treated, and some of the things that they make us do regimentally every day, and why they make you do that. They shave your head, make you wear the same uniforms, take everything away. They do that for a reason. And as soon as they can understand that a little better, kids — and as they grow into adults — understand what they’re getting into.”

Understanding the underlying reasons for showing respect permeate the culture at Chilton Middle School.

“I tell them every year that we don’t wear hats in our building. In medieval days, a knight would come into a castle, and if he ever kept his helmet on, that meant that he was there to engage in combat and battle. But if he takes his helmet off and he kept it in his hand, it meant that he came in peace and showed respect for that building,” he says. “They like the story, but they also get that they can show respect in that way. They don’t challenge it. They understand.”

Hard-earned lessons

“Nobody comes back from war unchanged. It just depends on how much you’re changed by it, and if it’s for better or worse. Sometimes it’s both. I think to be able to come back to show what kind of leader you can be when dealing with whatever situation comes up,” says Appel.

“If you can show compassion, if you can show decision making, if you can show all of those things to take the whole picture of what you’re dealing with — not just the kneejerk reaction — then I think people respect that and really will follow you with those kinds of decisions.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.