- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

BALTIMORE — The sale of hundreds of American flag buttons emblazoned with “I Support Sergeant Brian Mangiafico” has caused the war in Iraq to hit home in an unprecedented way for faculty, staff and the estimated 1,200 students Lansdowne High School in southern Baltimore County.

“We’ve never known anyone in a war before,” said senior Amber Colhouer, 17, who was wearing her button during lunch. “This makes it personal.”

Sgt. Mangiafico, 30, taught technology education, a required class, and served as adviser to the junior class and as offensive coordinator for the school football team until last November when he was called up to active duty in Iraq on 36 hours notice.

“On the football field, he was the guy who kept everything calm and under control,” said sophomore halfback Morris L. Turner, 15. “He yelled a lot. In the classroom, though, he was very quiet.”

The news of Sgt. Mangiafico’s deployment shocked friends and co-workers, who knew only that he was an inactive reservist with the Pennsylvania National Guard.

“It jolted all of us,” Jeff Mueller, history teacher and close friend, said Monday. “He was loved by staff and students alike, even though he was a disciplinarian.”

The last-minute deployment even surprised Sgt. Mangiafico’s fiancee, who abruptly had to reschedule a lavish wedding planned for July 12.

“Brian called me at 10 a.m. on November 13, the day he received the call to deploy,” Michele Mangiafico said. “He said he was driving up to meet me in New York. We were married the next day at the courthouse in Johnstown, Pa., with 27 people in attendance.”

Teachers at Lansdowne took up a collection in December when Mrs. Mangiafico’s husband went to Fort McCoy, Wis., for a month of training. But some thought the money wasn’t sufficient.

“This was one of our own, pulled out of here with less than a week’s notice,” said school librarian Joanna M. Dement. “Nobody wanted to send his wife a few hundred dollars and leave it at that.”

Miss Dement and a staff member designed and produced the buttons as a way of raising money for “one or two care packages.” School Principal Thomas E. DeHart financed the project out of his pocket.

“Even the kids who aren’t wearing buttons know who Brian is,” Mr. DeHart said. “The war effort isn’t just a newspaper headline at this school anymore.”

Teachers said the care packages include hard-to-find field items such as AA batteries, sewing kits, Chapstick, hard candy. They also contain handwritten letters from Sgt. Mangiafico’s former students, many of whom are anxious about his safety, and a football signed by this year’s team.

“My students always need a reality check,” said Col. John M. Long, commander of the school’s junior ROTC program. “Even 9/11 was just another TV show for a lot of them. This is real.”

Teachers and friends have sent e-mail to Sgt. Mangiafico, who is in Kuwait awaiting a convoy to Iraq, which is scheduled to leave within the next two weeks.

“His unit is getting outfitted and going through live-fire drills right now,”said social-studies teacher Leonard N. Leffner, a retired Army major.

Mr. Leffner said Sgt. Mangiafico’s unit, the 558th Engineering Battalion, will be involved in the renovation of Camp Victory North, a $900 million ex-Republican Guard commandery located northeast of Baghdad.

The apparent lack of glory in Sgt. Mangiafico’s assignment has not dampened the spirits of his supporters, who expect to send him the first care package as soon as he arrives at Victory North.

Mr. DeHart said Sgt. Mangiafico is “just a regular young guy, a schoolteacher and soldier making a sacrifice. That sobers the students up because they think it could happen to them.”

Senior Margee Hardester, 18, who bought a button despite never having had Sgt. Mangiafico as a teacher, said, “My image of him is a little different now.”

Mr. DeHart said the sergeant, who was in his third year at Lansdowne High, will continue to receive his teacher’s pay and accrue tenure for at least five years.

“He’s guaranteed a job in Baltimore County when he gets back next February,” Mr. DeHart said. “It might not be at this school, but he’ll get it.”

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