Although he served one tour in Iraq, Century High School history teacher Ryan Kaufman does not describe himself as a hero.
"The heroes are the ones that didn't come home," Kaufman said. "Jon Fettig. Keith Smette. Kenneth Hendrickson. All the guys that sacrificed and died. We all came home, and I got to hug my family and move on and live a full life and have children of my own. Those guys didn't get the chance to do anything. The soldiers who die are the true heroes."
From Meals Ready to Eat to roadside bombs, Kaufman, a member of the Army National Guard, can recall the life of a soldier serving in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
"We kind of roughed it right away. There was nothing there when our unit got there. It was basically a wide open field. So we put up tents, slept on cots. There were no showers. No running water. We built showers out of scrap lumber, and we had plumbers in the unit that knew how to pipe in water. We had to build our own latrines. We ate MRE's quite often."
Kaufman recalls that temperatures in the summer average 100 degrees, dropping to the 80s at night. Sweat was often the soldiers' only blanket.
"I wouldn't want to go back, I'll tell you that," said Kaufman, who was part of an engineering company.
"We did a lot of convoy missions from Kuwait up to Baghdad. Our primary mission was building bridges, but we didn't have to do that when we got there," Kaufman said. "Our secondary mission, because we had all these big trucks, was to haul stuff. We hauled supplies for the infantry back and forth from the port in Kuwait up to Baghdad."
He spent many hours on the road. He and the other members of his unit often slept in their vehicles.
"One of the most dangerous parts of being over there was driving," Kaufman said. "That's when the terrorists tried to get you was in these vehicles with roadside bombs."
Roadside bombs, or IEDs, were placed by terrorists and other extreme groups, and were common horrors for the locals of Iraq and the U.S. military. Terrorists buried them alongside roads or hid them in natural objects, such as dead animals or fallen trees.
"The second half of my deployment in Iraq, I was on a mission to clear roads of these bombs. It was called the Trailblazer mission," Kaufman said. "We would go out with equipment and scan the side of the roads with these big trucks and try to find these bombs and blow them up."
Overall, he says he feels his unit's missions were important, but it was the combined efforts of the entire U.S. military that made an impact on Iraq.
"The biggest thing was getting rid of Saddam Hussein," Kaufman said. "My unit wasn't directly involved in getting him, but he was captured while we were over there. He was a horrible dictator that was eventually removed from power. I think that if there was any good that came out of that war was Saddam Hussein not being in power anymore."
Today, Kaufman is involved in a new challenge: teaching history to high school students.
"I love history," he said. "I love seeing the looks in kids' eyes when I make something interesting to them when, otherwise, they wouldn't have cared about it."
He says that, because of his service, he has a different perspective of the Iraq war and that improves his ability to teach.
"I was there. I experienced it," Kaufman said. "So I definitely have a first-hand perspective of that war and what soldiers experienced, so I can bring that to my students and I think students really appreciate that. I show my students pictures from Iraq ... I think that teaches them something that they can't get from a textbook."
Many of Kaufman's students agree that his service in the Army National Guard and his enthusiasm for history have impacted the classroom.
"He's a veteran and a teacher. Both are extremely important to the country," said senior Brianna Tortalita, who was in one of Kaufman’s U.S. history classes last year. "He takes time to know his students."
Sarah Ashley, a senior at Century High and a former student, says she is grateful for Kaufman's example and that what he taught left an impression on her.
"I'll always remember the way he would tell us to push through our hard work not just for the next test, but for the long run," Ashley said. "When he'd say the long run, he didn't mean a final exam, he meant push through it to better your lives. He'd push us so we could realize how hard we could be pushed without falling down. If it weren't for Mr. Kaufman, I wouldn't know that I can push through anything and stand up with pride at the end of it. Mr. Kaufman is a true hero."