by Dennis Dalman
Years ago when he was in law school, it never once crossed David Peterson’s mind he would someday be using his legal expertise in a faraway country in the midst of war.
But that, in fact, is what happened. Not once. But twice.
Monday, at a Veterans Day ceremony sponsored by Sartell Middle School, Peterson shared some of his experiences as a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Peterson worked as an attorney for many years with the Dan Eller Law Office in Waite Park, but more recently he took a job as human-resources specialist for the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Cloud. As a 16-year member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, Major Peterson still does some legal work for the military. He’s also a member of the Sartell City Council.
For a year, starting in 2009 and ending in 2010, he served in Iraq as a legal advisor for “rule-of-law” issues. Then, a year later, he served for six months in Afghanistan helping police, judges and courts in a counter-corruption program.
In two talks for two ceremonies in the Sartell Middle School gymnasium, Peterson addressed jam-packed audiences of students in the bleachers. He shared projected slides of his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but before that, Peterson opened his presentation with a pep talk to the students.
He told the students to do their very best at whatever they pursue – whether extracurricular activities or studies.
“Practice hard,” he advised, “and learn from your mistakes.
If people apply themselves, good things will happen, especially if they keep forging ahead even under trying times when people find it hard to believe in themselves, Peterson told the students.
Being called to active duty in two warring countries, he said, was a “curve ball” Peterson did not expect, but life, he noted, is full of “curve balls.” That’s why students must work hard, apply themselves, do their best and forge ahead. If they do, they are certain to succeed, Peterson promised.
Peterson’s slide-show consisted of snapshot glimpses of him and his colleagues in a rather alien terrain of desert-like dusty and rocky landscapes. His jobs there required many long hours of travel, sometimes to remote villages where he would meet with police, judges, attorneys in police centers and in courtrooms. Peterson showed several photos of his transportation – helicopters and armored vehicles. He had to be prepared and ready for anything because his travels could take him in no time at all from sweltering places of 120 degrees to frigid temperatures in the snowy, higher elevations of mountains.
Peterson also showed slides of city streets, vendors’ shops, a typical child asking soldiers for treats and a glimpse of the occasional relaxation and fun he and his colleagues enjoyed – softball games that were perfect for breaking up any monotony.
Petersons said he feels honored to have served with so many dedicated, hard-working people from different branches of the military. But he reserved his highest praise for ones who also “served” back home. There are, of course, dangers in war-torn lands, he said, but what’s truly terrifying, he added, is when loved ones back home don’t receive a phone call they expected from a soldier. Just one missed call can provoke terrible anxieties and dreadful uncertainties in the minds of folks back home.
“They are the unsung heroes,” Peterson said, singling out his wife, Kristina, whom he asked to stand and be recognized as the audience applauded. The Petersons have two children, Lauren and Devon, who are both students at Sartell Middle School.
Peterson encouraged everyone to help out the families of the men and women serving far from home. Even simple activities like raking and shoveling can be a huge help and a comfort, he noted. It will show them people do care and that they, too, are greatly appreciated, along with their loved ones serving their country.
The Veterans Day ceremony at the middle school began with the presenting of the colors by a contingent of the American Legion Post 277 of Sartell.
After the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by State Rep. Tim O’Driscoll of Sartell, the student band and choir performed a series of patriotic songs, such as “America,” “Of Thee I Sing” and “God Bless America.”
The show was emceed by Sartell Middle School Student Council co-president Courtney Halvorson and the council’s secretary-treasurer Thomas Connolly. Also present were many teachers, staff, Sartell Middle School Principal Julie Tripp and Sartell-St. Stephen School District Interim Superintendent Mike Spanier.
Sartell Mayor Joe Perske gave a welcome speech and then explained the origins of Veterans Day. It began in 1918, at the end of World War I, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the exact time and date when the armistice was signed by the warring parties in Europe. For years, the celebration on Nov. 11 was known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the big war that was to be – in the hopeful minds of many – the war to end all wars. In 1954, Perske noted, Armistice Day was re-named Veterans Day.