Among students at All Saints Academy at St. Norbert, he’s known as Mr. Koehler.
But boarding a plane March 3, he would be known as Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Koehler, reporting for active duty with the U.S. Navy. He was deployed to support the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa at Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, and is expected to serve there for about a year.
Students and faculty at All Saints-St. Norbert in Florissant held a going-away party for Koehler Feb. 22. Music filled the gymnasium — including what else but the Village People’s “In the Navy,” among other tunes — as students crowded around their teacher to offer goodbyes and well-wishes.
This is the first time in recent memory that the school has had a teacher called to active duty. Koehler joined the staff three years ago teaching science to sixth- through eighth-graders and as a sixth-grade homeroom teacher. He’s been called to active duty in the past — most recently to Kuwait in 2012 as well as several sea deployments — but this is his first assignment away as the father of two young children. His wife, Amanda, and daughters, two-and-a-half year-old Aquilina and eight-month-old Isidora, will remain in St. Louis. He plans to return to his teaching job at All Saints-St. Norbert when he comes home.
As a surface warfare officer, Koehler will be working with coalition and regional partners to increase stability in the area and to counteract militant groups, such as Al-Shabaab, based in that region. The task force also participates in humanitarian assistance missions.
Much like his calling to the military, Koehler noted that working in a Catholic school is a special kind of service to others. As the product of Catholic schools — St. Catherine of Alexandria grade school in Riverview Gardens and Saint Louis University High School — he described Catholic education as providing a “great continuity … it’s more everybody knows each other and you know the students more closely.”
In the Navy, he’s kept his Catholic faith tucked away a bit. That said, the military is pretty accommodating of those who practice their faith, he noted. Chaplains and lay organizations bring their own personal styles, but ultimately there’s something to be said for the universality of the Church and the sacraments wherever he’s been stationed.
“I will be missing a lot of the community I have here, where I know everybody,” said the member of St. Margaret of Scotland in south St. Louis. “But part of being in the military is easily adapting … you meet and get to know new people and join a community pretty quickly.” When stationed in Kuwait, he got to know the priest chaplain at the base. Koehler provided musical accompaniment at Mass with his flute.
Koehler came into teaching, first as a substitute teacher in public school, then full-time at All Saints-St. Norbert. His father is a retired teacher, and at one point as an undergrad Koehler enrolled in a teaching program, but dropped that when he entered the Navy. In active duty, he contracted a position teaching sailors who were earning college credit.
“It always seemed to keep coming back to (teaching),” he said. “It was something I thought I would enjoy pursuing.”
Koehler plans to keep in touch with students while he’s away. Communication back home will be a challenge with a nine-hour time difference, so email and sharing documents, pictures and videos through Google Classroom will be the primary forms of keeping in touch.
Seventh-grader Kristin Hendricks had Koehler last year for homeroom. She said she will miss his sense of humor the most. She appreciated his help as a science teacher and looks forward to his return. “I hope that he gets there safe,” she said.
Middle-school language arts teacher Debbie Tesson described Koehler as “very intelligent. The kids learn so much from him and they love his dry sense of humor. He’s very caring and so passionate about the kids and what he teaches. He’s fun to work with. The kids will be excited to see him again.”