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Kosovo puts school day in perspective

While serving in Kosovo, Superintendent of Schools Mike Funk kept in regular contact with home via the Mac laptop computer now on his office desk. Its video camera allowed him to watch his youngest daughter's first steps from half a world a way. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

OLIVIA -- Whether it's dealing with upset parents or grumbles from the lunch room, it all seems a lot easier for Mike Funk.

He's back in his role as superintendent of the BOLD Schools this school year. He returns with the perspective gleaned from service during last school year as Lt. Col. Mike Funk, commander of 412 Minnesota National Guard troops in Kosovo.

In some ways, his role in Kosovo with the military was more predictable than that of superintendent, "where no two days are the same,'' he said with a laugh.

Funk was responsible in Kosovo for troops with the Mankato-based, 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry unit. They served as part of Task Force Bayonet. Stationed at Camp Bondsteel in southeast Kosovo, they were charged with keeping the peace in their area and as a tactical reserve. They were the first to respond when help was needed elsewhere.

The Minnesota troops started their service in Kosovo last October, and served during a period when tensions built and flared. The country declared its independence from Serbia on Feb. 17. While the ethnic Albanian population celebrated, the ethnic Serbians protested.

Yet Funk returned home in July from his Kosovo tour optimistic about the country's prospects. The NATO presence that began in 1999 is making a difference, he said.

He served a similar peacekeeping mission in Bosnia during 2003, and feels that Kosovo is making more progress toward stability.

Funk said his troops enjoyed "instant credibility'' just by wearing the U.S. flag in their sector of Kosovo. U.S. troops have established a reputation as an honest broker of peace in the country, he explained.

In the southeastern corner of the country, ethnic Albanians comprise 90 percent of the population and things were relatively calm.

It could be dicey for troops in the northern half of the country, where there is a larger ethnic Serbian population and tensions with the ethnic Albanians more apparent, according to Funk.

After Kosovo's declaration of independence, some of Funk's troops were called to help reassert control of northern border crossing points from protesting Serbs.

Even absent the political strife, day-to-day life in Kosovo offers lots of challenges.

Funk doesn't remember seeing a school which didn't have shattered and shuttered windows. Classrooms are heated by wood-burning stoves. In many areas, the contracts for wood supplies did not meet the needs.

School supplies are scarce. With limited space in schools, younger students attend class in the mornings and the older students in the afternoon.

Despite these obstacles, Funk said the students he met in Kosovo were genuinely appreciative. Before the NATO presence, harassment and poverty kept many from attending school.

The country's entire infrastructure needs upgrading, according to Funk. It wasn't unusual for the electrical power to go out for six or 12 hours at a stretch. He attended many meetings where the lights flickered off and the candles were promptly lit.

He hosted a Friday evening radio show to update the local population. He estimates that power outages took him off the air probably 40 percent of the time.

Back home in Olivia, his wife, Anne, and their three daughters could listen to his weekly broadcast on the Internet. A video camera on his Apple computer allowed him to conduct regular video calls home to family. Thanks to the technology, he watched his youngest daughter take her first steps.

The contact with home was welcome, but Funk noted that it came at a cost too. It can be very hard to hear about problems at home, and be unable to do anything about it.

He had 19-year-old troops going out on patrol and putting their lives at risk and keeping their focus despite receiving upsetting news from home.

The experience puts many of our problems here in perspective, he said, while it also offers him ideas on others. One thing he especially appreciated about Kosovo was the ability of people there to take the rush out of the day.

Most of all, he appreciated the return and being reunited with family and friends.

Would he serve again? No doubt about it. He has 20 years of service in the Guard and could retire, but recently accepted an opportunity for study with the U.S. Army War College. He was offered one of only three slots available to officers with the Minnesota National Guard.