PIPER CITY — Maj. Todd Fatka of the U.S. Army Reserves was officially welcomed back Monday to his teaching post at Tri-Point Upper Elementary and Junior High School by what he said was the most extensive welcome home he had ever received.
Students and faculty took part in activities that began with a flag-raising ceremony on the front lawn of the school in Piper City. Students Khayman Essington and Ethan Tucek properly raised the flag while classmates and faculty put hands over their hearts and recited the pledge of allegiance.
Activities continued in the school’s gymnasium, where the junior high band played the national anthem. Principal Jay Bennett spoke briefly and introduced Fatka, who received a standing ovation.
Fatka said he will be relating aspects of his deployment to Afghanistan to students over the next week, including the upcoming Veterans Day celebration, but he wanted to focus Monday on recognizing students and staff who acted with patriotic spirit during his 10-month deployment. Fatka said recognizing those who serve and offering support is the Army’s way.
Fatka presented 18 students with a U.S. flag pin for specific patriotic training they had studied, such as how to properly raise and lower the U.S. flag. Fatka thanked the students for their citizenship and patriotism.
The two highest-scoring students, Alexis Donnelly and Raymond Hummel, were presented with certificates in recognition of international citizenship through learning about and then recognizing flags of other countries.
The third award was a singular recognition of fellow teacher Keri Andrews, who coordinated sustained production and mailing of letters, videos and care packages from staff and students. Fatka had designed the Friends and Family Support Medal himself and previously presented it to friends and family of soldiers in his command.
Fatka said soldiers serve the nation to keep it safe, but family and friends are “the strength behind the soldier.”
The official welcome activities ended with the band, directed by Diane Perkins, playing a medley of patriotic songs.
Fatka, 37, began his employment with Tri-Point Community Unit School District during the 2017-18 school year. Fatka, therefore, had taught three semesters before being deployed in January 2019 to Afghanistan and returning in late October.
Bennett praised the work of the two substitute teachers who covered the period of Fatka’s deployment. Bennett said substitute teachers are hard to find in general, so he was especially pleased with the quality of personnel who taught Fatka’s classes during his absence.
Jay Eshleman of Paxton taught the spring 2019 semester, and Rhonda McCoy of Piper City taught the first two months of the current semester. McCoy was present for the welcome activities, and she also received a standing ovation from students and faculty when recognized by Bennett.
Fatka earned an education degree from Eastern Illinois University in December 2005, with a certification in math. His first teaching job was as a physical education teacher at Chebanse Elementary School in 2008.
His introduction to the idea of military service came courtesy of his mother, who noticed the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) brochures during college registration that offered the chance for scholarships. At first, Fatka told her he had no interest in military service.
However, Fatka ended up enlisting in ROTC with a rank of private during his freshman year and took basic training in the summer at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. In his junior year, Fatka signed a cadet contract and was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves in January 2006, first as a second lieutenant and eventually rising to the rank of major through a series of favorable performance reviews.
During his most recent deployment, Fatka spent half of his time working with staff in Kabul to oversee Afghan expenditures of U.S. supporting funds and the other half meeting with Afghan leadership to assess and prioritize remaining projects. His first deployment took him to Iraq and Kuwait in 2010, and his second deployment in 2013-14 was also to Afghanistan.
Fatka said he has been taking additional studies online to add additional certificates to his education degree, with the ultimate goal of soon earning a master’s degree in education.
Fatka was raised in the Gilman area and now lives in rural Chebanse with his wife, Lara, and three children: Evelyn, 18; John, 13; and Elizabeth, 9.
Future deployments cannot be ruled out, as Fatka said deployments are according to “the needs of the Army.” However, most often there is a five-year period between reservist deployments. In 2021, Fatka will achieve 20 years of service and will be eligible in retirement for a military pension.
Fatka said he feels one of the positives of his deployment is that it helps to connect small towns and their schools’ students to what is going on in the world.
It’s probably no coincidence that the patriotic students of Tri-Point schools enjoyed giving Fatka a special welcome back. The school’s colors are red, white and blue.