St. Peter’s students use Internet to talk with soldier in Afghanistan

Former St. Peter’s student Jake Haider talked to sixth-graders about his military experience on Nov. 9. Teachers are, from left, computer teacher Joleen Thordson, who set up the technology, sixth-grade teacher Jeff Murawski, and retired fifth-grade teacher Mary Howe, whose students last year sent letters to Lieutenant Haider.

First Lieutenant Jake Haider, a former student at St. Peter’s Catholic School in Forest Lake, talked about guns and faith with the class that has been praying for him.

Haider is stationed with the Army in Afghanistan. He is scheduled to return to the U.S. in December.

Last year Mary Howe’s class, then fifth-graders, said a daily prayer for Jake. They also mailed him a batch of personal letters at the end of the school year.

On Nov. 9, using a computer-to-computer Internet connection, the entire class was able to talk with Haider about his experience. The phone call began at 11:30 a.m., which was 10 p.m. in Afghanistan.

The image on the laptop was enlarged on the Smartboard at the front of the room, so all could see.

At first one camera was not working, so Haider could see the students but they could not see him. Instead, his photograph appeared on the screen.

The audio connection was good enough to proceed, so the students took turns asking questions to find out what his life is like in Afghanistan.

Toward the end of the half-hour phone call, which is transcribed below, Haider switched to a different computer and the class was able to see him in real time and also see his friend dressed in field gear.

Teacher Mary Howe is now retired, but she was at school for the Skype call.

Jake Haider is one of four sons of Dan and Margee Haider of Forest Lake. All four boys attended St. Peter’s School and Forest Lake High School.

Questions and Answers

How long have you been there? What is your job?

I’ve been here since April 1 of this year. In the summer we had 120° weather, but now it’s getting cold. We’re in the very southern part of Afghanistan, close to the border of Pakistan. We are training their army to secure the country when the U.S. leaves. I’m almost finished and will be coming home in December.

How many years of training did you have?

I went to St. John’s University and had four years of Army training there. Then I entered the Army and got a year of training there.

How much gear do you wear on a mission? 

I wear 40 to 50 pounds: rifle and ammunition, body armor on back, chest and side, a Kevlar helmet, kneepads, medical supplies, maps and two pounds of water.

What do you do for fun? 

We have only two sets of clothes, a duty uniform and a physical fitness uniform. So first we change to the physical fitness uniform, because it’s more comfortable. We play card games and cribbage. Volleyball is popular in Afghanistan. The Afghans are very good at it and usually beat us.

What is your favorite gun?

My favorite is the tank main cannon.

What rank are you?

I’m a First Lieutenant, which means I was promoted once.

What is a regular day like?

Every day is a work day. We get no weekend, no day off. In the morning we get up and do physical training and then eat a hearty breakfast. At the team meeting we get our plans for the day. Most of the day is spent with our Afghan counterparts, teaching them to become a better army.

How has your faith played a role during your time in Afghanistan?

My faith plays a big role. Catholic chaplains are very rare, so I’ve had Mass only twice during my time here. With no access to a priest or Mass, I rely on building my faith myself. I’m reading the Bible in a year, so I do daily Bible reading. I hold a mini-Mass myself. It keeps up my strength and my spirits. When comrades are wounded or killed, my faith strengthens me, and seeing their faith is also powerful.  We have a lot of time on our hands to reflect and build prayer habits.  It’s been a huge help and a blessing to have everyone’s prayers back home.

Do you get any American food? What is your favorite food?

Food varies from base to base. Some soldiers get hot dogs and hamburgers every day for months.  Some get Chinese, English, European, and American food.

MREs [for “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” — individually packaged field rations] are ready-made, processed, not very tasty. We can heat them up. My favorite MRE is chicken and dumplings with marble cake.

At my base, there are two great cooks, from India and Kenya. We can make our own omelet for breakfast, or any kind of eggs we want.

The Afghanis eat rice, bread, vegetables, very little meat (sheep or lamb). Their food is delicious, with a lot of spices.  Unfortunately, we can’t drink their water, so the meals are very dry.

What is the most rewarding thing?

Most rewarding is helping them secure their country from the insurgency and keep their country safe, seeing the Afghan army making progress and becoming more skilled.

The most frustrating thing is the very slow progress. It’s difficult to see people who senselessly hurt innocent people.

What is the scariest thing?

There are jumping spiders that leap at you. IEDs [improvised explosive devices] are roadside bombs that insurgents place. Vehicles that drive over them are wrecked, and sometimes people get hurt. We use heavily armored vehicles, and we try to find them before they go off.

How secure is your base?

Our base is very secure. We have high walls and cameras that can see anything coming up. There have never been any attacks on the base.

What do you plan to do when you get home? 

My fiancée and family are coming to see me. I plan to ski in Colorado. I look forward to snow. I’ll take a road trip to see national parks in the spring, see the beauty of the U.S. I’m looking forward to having my car again, having some days off.

What motivated you to join the Army?

When I went to college, I had no intention of military service. Learning about the world, I wanted to do my part to make it a better place. I’m a great believer in the U.S. I wanted to build a better future for the Afghan people. Waking up early, going into the field, sleeping two hours a night—these are no fun at all. But I’m very confident in my decision.

Do you celebrate holidays?

We do our best, but it’s very difficult to celebrate over here. We can’t go anywhere, we’re stuck on the base, so we try to keep things going. We did not dress up for Halloween, just wore the same old uniforms.

Have you received any medals?

Yes, we all get awards after deployment. There will be an award ceremony. A lot of soldiers have done very brave and courageous things. The army is very good about rewarding its soldiers.

Do you guys get to watch movies?

Absolutely. With no time off and nowhere to go, we watch movies on our personal computers. We all brought a bunch of movies to share. I’m looking forward to returning to the U.S. and catching up on the movies that came out since we’ve been gone.