Chanting "Coach" and waving hundreds of American flags, Queen Creek Elementary School students and staff surprised teacher Mark Sobol on Wednesday with a patriotic send-off. Sobol, a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves, is leaving for a yearlong deployment in July. First, he'll go to Fort Bliss, Texas; after that, he's not sure where he'll be deployed.
The physical education teacher was surprised and elated by the schoolwide assembly.
"It's overwhelming," said Sobol, 31. "I had no clue. I thought it was weird everyone was wearing red today."
Principal Sheri Horton declared May 21 as Sobol Day. School and district staff collected about $1,200 to buy Sobol and his wife, Autumn, a fifth-grade teacher at Jack Barnes Elementary School, a laptop computer, a digital camera and a webcam so they can keep in touch during his deployment.
"A lot of kids have been asking where he's going and why he's going," said Horton, who spent three weeks planning the surprise. "It was important to (the students) to show why they love him and how they feel about him, and for him to know why we appreciate him. We hope he comes back."
Sobol is among a number of teachers in the south East Valley who are being pulled away from their classrooms to serve their country.
Sobol was in the Army for four years and has been in the reserves for two years. He and his wife live in Queen Creek.
He said he plans to come back to teach in the Queen Creek Unified School District after his tour is complete.
Sobol will have a job available if he decides to return to the district. Denise Johnson, principal of Queen Creek Middle School, said deployed teachers are given 60 days after they return from deployment to say whether they would like to return to the classroom.
"We have a position for them," she said.
Sharon Aut, who left for military duty in July, was a sixth-grade science teacher at Queen Creek Middle School. The lieutenant colonel is serving in Kuwait as the director of operations for data and telecommunications in the Army, said her husband, Col. R.D. Aut, an intelligence officer and pilot with the Arizona Army National Guard.
She is to return to the U.S. in July, but will have a short rest in Queen Creek before she and her husband are sent on a yearlong deployment to Pennsylvania.
"Once she returns from active duty she plans on returning to teaching, but not until fall 2009," said R.D. Aut. "She's doing pretty well. She was just home last week."
Besides working in the Queen Creek district, Aut also taught for several years in the Gilbert Unified School District.
"We were just sick when she left," Johnson said of Aut. "The school has adopted her unit and sent care packages. She's also e-mailed and kept in touch with the school."
Staff Sgt. Mike Semeja was teaching summer school for the Scottsdale Unified School District when he applied for active duty in the National Guard. He was sent to Afghanistan for a year as an aircraft refueler and is now working as an Arizona Army National Guard recruiter.
Semeja plans to go back to teaching after he finishes a master's degree in secondary education and retires from the military.
"I love teaching," said Semeja, 35, who lives in Queen Creek with his wife and four kids. "I love kids. There's no greater reward."