Iraq war veteran, teacher, urges tolerance, peace, in time of war

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Columbia Falls Junior High School teacher Andrew Lilienthal shares a lighter moment with his students recently.

Andrew Lilienthal has seen the worst of war. He hopes his students never have to.

Lilienthal gradauted from Columbia Falls High School in 1998, and enlisted in the Army the week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I felt like I kind of owed somebody,” Lilienthal said recently about his reasons for joining the military. He was attending Flathead Valley Community College at the time and doing well at school.

He joined the Army in a delayed entry program. After basic training in 2002 he was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as part of the Stryker Brigade out of Fort Lewis, Washington.

He spent the next year patrolling the infamous city of Mosul. He saw car bombings that were so bad, the people in the vehicle were literally fused together from the blast. He narrowly missed being blown up by a improvised explosive device.

“You’re in a cloud of white before you hear the sound,” he recalled. “People are running in all directions. You can feel the shrapnel landing all over the place.”

They traveled in Army Stryker vehicles. They carried about 11 soldiers and were a good rig.

“They didn’t blow up from IEDs like Humvees did,” he said. “They could drive through them.”

He recalled the intense boredom of hours on end on watch, broken by intense combat.

Their outpost was near the Tigris River in small town outside Mosul. Mosul is an ancient city and it was there that Lilienthal grew interested in history. The buildings are built one on top of each other, with layers of foundations rising 200 feet above the ground level he noted.

Alexander the Great fought near Mosul, Lilienthal noted. When they got truckloads of gravel for their base, pieces stone age tools could be found among the stones, he said.

“Everyday we walked by artifacts that were thousands of years old,” he said.

He also took a different view of the Iraqi people. The ordinary Iraqi wants peace, he noted.

“They’re not looking to fight,” he said. “They’ll obey whoever has a gun to their head ... they’re just trying to live.”

He said that government systems time and time again have failed them. We take for granted what they don’t have — like clean water, reliable electricity and infrastructure like sewer systems that actually work.

The government is tribal systems that are very much eye for and eye. Sunni and Shiite sects don’t get along and retaliation is commonplace — witness the multiple car bombings.

When Lilienthal got out of the Army he went on to study history and received a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico and then went on to obtain a teaching certification. Andrew and his wife, Cassidy, a nurse and Bigfork native wanted to raise a family here, so Andrew applied for a job teaching social studies and geography over the summer and he got the job.

During the recent Veterans Day ceremony, he was awarded the Kerel Hagen Award, which recognizes a veteran in School District 6 each year for their service.

Lilienthal said he was surprised at the honor. During his acceptance speech, he cautioned the crowd about zealous nationalism.

“War isn’t pretty. It’s really not full of glory,” he said.

He’s also worried that his own students might someday have to fight and it makes him wonder about the worth of his own service.

“If I have to send students (to war) then (my service) is almost worthless,” he said. “It makes you question whether it was worth it.”

He noted that mankind has spent far money and resources killing people than it has helping humanity. He hopes for more tolerance.

“People should be able to do what they want, within reason,” he said.

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