Sgt. Chelsea Peterson has American flag flown on Afghani soil in honor of her sixth-grade teacher in Rush City
Paul Kirby is hardly known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
After all, he’s a Marine, a high school football coach, a guy who grew up on the Range.
Yet the gift of an American flag, one that flew in eyeshot of the enemy in Afghanistan, got to him. And with good reason.
Kirby, who is in his 13th year of teaching sixth grade at Jacobson Elementary in Rush City, received the gift from Sgt. Chelsea Peterson who visited his class last month. A member of the Minnesota National Guard’s 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, based in Cambridge, she talked to Kirby and his students about her unit’s 10-month deployment last year to Afghanistan, in support of the war of terror.
Peterson also happens to be a former student whose sixth-grade class had a unique bond with Kirby. They were his first students upon his graduation from Bemidji State University, and they only had each other when watching the terror that struck the nation on Sept. 11, 2001, unfold on Kirby’s classroom television.
Greatly impacted by her former teacher and friend, Peterson found something to give back 12 years later when she had an opportunity to fly an American flag in recognition of someone back home. She chose to honor Kirby.
On Nov. 13, 2013, the flag was flown over Forward Operating Base Shank, near Kabul, before it was formally retired, ceremoniously folded and given to her. Accompanying the flag is a certificate, indicating:
“These Stars and Stripes were proudly flown … at the request of Sgt. Chelsea Peterson for view of the enemies of the United States. This flag represents the American resolve following the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and bears witness to the destruction of terrorist forces threatening the Freedom of the United States of America and the world.”
Peterson, a 2008 graduate of Rush City High School, returned to Jacobson Elementary last month and presented the certificate and the flag to Kirby and his classroom. For the students, many of whom on 9/11 had yet to be born, they enjoyed a question-and-answer session with their teacher and new friend.
“It was an emotional reminder of the sacrifices that the men and women of our Armed Forces continue to selflessly make in defense of freedom,” Kirby shared with his class.
He said the flag and accompanying document, which are now secured behind glass in a wooden frame, will be displayed in the main hall trophy case at the elementary school.
Kirby recalls Peterson as a talented athlete in school, as she also played basketball for him in his second year of teaching. She also succeeded at softball and hockey.
“She was an open, honest and up-front person,” he added. “She was a good student to have in class and on a team.”
Thanks in large part to the bond that can be established early on within a small town community, Kirby regularly stays in touch with many of his former students who have since graduated. He enjoys keeping updated on their families and other life events.
As the only military veteran on staff at Jacobson Elementary, he especially can relate to those students including Peterson who follow a similar path in life. He often is asked questions about his four years with the Marines, which included a deployment to Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1995, followed by a tour in Kuwait in 1997. He had taken fire from the enemy on multiple occasions.
“I’m a front line grunt,” he noted. “I sat in a fighting hole 6 miles off the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait on Christmas Day.”
With Peterson, he considers her an adult peer now, as they can swap “war stories” and other parts of military life. “Chelsea and I know what it’s like to miss a Thanksgiving dinner and other family traditions,” he said.
While he typically keeps his emotions in check, he admitted to getting a little “choked up” by her gift.
“I’m big on symbolism,” he said. “It’s nice to be remembered, thought about in that regard. She took the time and went through the military procedures to remember a teacher back home. It’ll serve as a teaching point for me for years to come. From the symbolism of a folded flag, students can learn that kids from Rush City are serving all over the world.”