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Bruce Cunningham, an art teacher at North Newton is in the Army National Guard.

Three North Newton High School teachers have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bruce Cunningham, an art teacher at North Newton, still is in the Army National Guard. Greg Willis is away on guard duty this weekend, and Bob Gonczy was in Indianapolis.

MOROCCO | Life sometimes imitates art.

The award-winning HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," based on the life of Maj. Richard Winters and the "E" Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division during World War II, depicts the human realities of war.

The miniseries hit home for North Newton's Greg Willis, who was deployed to Iraq with the National Guard in 2008 and 2009. Willis is just one of five North Newton teachers or coaches who served in the U.S. Army or Air Force since the Iraq War began in 2003.

"If you've seen the 'Band of Brothers,' Winters' grandson asks him, 'Granddad, were you a hero?'" recalls Willis.

"'No, but I served with some really great people, wonderful people.'

"I got to serve with some great people," Willis added.

Also serving from North Newton was Bruce Cunningham, a high school teacher and wrestling coach, deployed to Iraq from October 2005 to October 2006. Girls basketball coach Bob Gonczy has been in the military for more than 25 years and has been in the Army Reserves for the past 12 years as a chief warrant officer. He just missed getting deployed at the same time as Willis.

"There are people who get deployed, and there are others who volunteer," Gonczy said.

Gonczy got orders the same time Willis did, but another CWO volunteered to go in his place.

"I learned to appreciate what you have, family and all the little things you take for granted," he said.

Cunningham's dad and uncle served in the military, so he was more than proud to serve.

"Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "It's one of those things when you hate to leave home, but you want to serve."

Willis missed his wife and son dearly, but the deployment came at a good time in his professional life. Just before he was deployed he was let go as the Spartans' head football coach and decided to step down as athletic director and return to the classroom.

"I had some hard feelings for the administration and the board," he said. "It was good to get away from here and a chance to cool off and refocus."

Like Gonczy, Willis is a CWO, and he was stationed about 45 miles northwest of Baghdad in the middle of the desert near the Tigris River.

"People talk about serving for God, country and the flag," Willis said. "When you get in tight situations, you push on for the guys next to you. There's a lot of camaraderie."

 

Transitioning back

North Newton's Band of Brothers has an unbreakable bond.

"With the military there's always a bond," Cunningham said. "That's just the way it is. You all know what you had to go though to get there, jumping through all the hoops."

Cunningham took two weeks off after he got back from his deployment and went right back to school.

"My wrestling season was starting, and I told them 'I'll be ready,'" he said.

Willis, who will mark 30 years in the Army Reserves in February, said it's undeniable.

"Once you've been deployed, we've experienced something only those who've gone through it can relate to," he said. " It's a life-changing experience that happens to you regardless.

"At one time, the AD and head football coach, myself, the girls and boys basketball coach, (Robert) Phelps and Bob and Bruce, the wrestling coach were all in the military. Phelps has since moved on, and Bob and Bruce and myself are still here."

In addition, current football assistant Norm Hemphill also served in Iraq from December 2007 to January of 2009.

"It's a pretty elite group when you think about it," Gonczy said.

Willis took a little longer to get acclimated back in the flow of school, but he's relayed his experiences in the world history classes he teaches.

"I can tell the kids, 'Ive seen the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. I've been to Mesopotamia,'" he said.

It's who they are

Cunningham's uncle, Joe Cunningham, was in the Air Force, and Joe's son, Brett, is a pilot in the Air Force now. His dad was a POW in Korea, and his mom's brother was a POW in World War II. Bruce is glad he joined the Guard.

"If I hadn't got to serve, I would've been disappointed -- with all that my family has done," he said. "It's been really good for me. It's been a second career for me."

Hemphill, who spent 23 1/2 years in the military, mainly in the Air Force, said he didn't serve for the recognition or status.

"I did it for the colors," he said. "I enjoy my freedoms. It was a job, and somebody had to do it. That's how a lot of guys who serve now."

Cunningham, Gonczy and Willis have no plans to leave the military.

"God willing," Gonczy said. "I'm 45, going on 19."

Cunningham said, "I'll stay in until they ask me to get out."

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