A life of service

Military veterans in education

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Growing up in western New York, Sandi Wilcox knew many Marines, including her father. After graduating from high school, Wilcox decided to enlist.  

“It seemed like the right fit,” Wilcox remembers.  

Wilcox served four years in active service and did another two years in the reserves. While she ultimately decided to leave to spend more time with her growing family, “My only regret was getting out of the military.”  

Wilcox’s service took her to California, Nevada and two tours on the USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier. Wilcox’s job in the Marine Corps was aviation ordnance, or loading bombs on airplanes. When she left the military, she realized, “That wasn’t a job I could necessarily pursue in the outside world.”  

Sandi Wilcox, a paraprofessional in Burlington County and the 2023 NJEA ESP of the Year, is a Marine veteran. 

Instead, Wilcox worked in offices as a secretary or administrative assistant, until her son’s medical emergency changed everything.  

“My son had a brain hemorrhage,” Wilcox says. “When he came out of surgery and recovered, he had special needs.”  

Wilcox decided to pursue a career in special education, joining the staff at Burlington County Special Services as a teacher assistant. She believes her military service has had a powerful influence on her career in education, which has been one of excellence—she is the 2023 Burlington County Educational Support Professional of the Year.  

“As a union member and as a Marine you advocate for each other, you stick up for each other and you help each other out,” says Wilcox. “In both professions, we hold ourselves to very high standards. I believe that we have all made a commitment to doing a job well and being a team player. I’m always looking around to see where I can help and who I can help. No one gets left behind. Whether it’s staff or students, no one gets left behind.”  

A sense of adventure 

Tamar LaSure-Owens also was influenced by her father, a Vietnam veteran, in her decision to enlist in the Army National Guard while she was in college. 

“I was always interested in the military, and I am a very adventurous person,” LaSure-Owens says. “I wanted independence and control at a young age. My father talked about some of the issues he faced during his military service. He certainly faced discrimination, but he also talked about how it gave him an opportunity to travel and support his family.”  

Army National Guard veteran and Pleasantville teacher Tamar LaSure-Owens presents a workshop at the NJEA Equity Alliance Conference in January 2022. 

LaSure-Owens was born in Washington, and her brother was born in France. Her older siblings spoke French while the family was stationed overseas.  

“It was an experience for all of them,” she says. “Growing up with that direction and tradition was powerful.”  

LaSure-Owens was part of many firsts while serving in the military. She served in a male-dominated unit and was one of only three women who graduated from officer training in 2000. A year later, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed almost everything. For the first time, National Guard members were deployed first, and LaSure-Owens was ready.  

“Like every soldier, I wanted to lay down my life for my country,” LaSure-Owens says.  

She served at Oyster Creek Power Plant as the first female officer on patrol.  

After 10 years in the military, LaSure-Owens shifted her focus to education. Since 2007, she has taught in Pleasantville, and is currently a third-grade teacher.  

“Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage—that is what you lead with in the Army, and that’s what you bring with you as an educator.”  

Exploring the world – and bringing it to the classroom 

Ismael Aponte was six months away from graduating from high school when he signed the paperwork to join the Army.  

After graduating from basic training at Fort Dix, Aponte deployed to South Korea where he worked as a ground surveillance radar operator. 

“Our job was to monitor the border using radar systems,” Aponte says. “People might not realize it, but there is still technically a war going on between North and South Korea.” 

Little Ferry Spanish teacher Ismael Aponte in his official Army portrait.

From there, Aponte served on bases in Texas and Arizona. After four years of active service, Aponte transitioned to the reserves. He worked in law enforcement at the federal level but resigned to pursue a dream he had long held.  

“I always wanted to complete my college degree,” Aponte says. “In 2007, I graduated from East Stroudsburg University with bachelor’s degrees in science and in secondary education, with a concentration in Spanish. I fell into education by chance.”  

Aponte was working as a part-time Spanish teacher and substitute teaching in Pennsylvania when he learned of the Spanish teacher position in Little Ferry. On the drive home from the interview, he learned he’d gotten the job. He’s been teaching elementary and middle school Spanish in the district for the past eight years.  

For Aponte, his military service informs his role as an educator.  

“Being an educator and having served in the military requires certain things from the individual,” Aponte says. “It takes a sense of pride, a sense of honor, a commitment to duty and an understanding that you are a role model every minute of the day.”  

Juggling teaching and serving 

Todd Pagel always knew he wanted to teach and coach. He grew up in the Montgomery/Princeton area, and his mother taught in Edison for 35 years.  

He also knew that he wanted to serve in the military but needed the timing to be right.  

Edison teacher Todd Pagel, as he is promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Pagel began teaching history at Bernardsville High School, but in 2009, he was laid off during a reduction in staff. That’s when he and his wife decided the time was right for him to join the military.  

Pagel enlisted with the Coast Guard reserves. He also accepted a position at Edison High School. As a reservist, he balances his career in education with his military service, but that has grown to be a greater challenge as his unit has been called up more frequently.  

“It’s a unique challenge doing both,” Pagel says. “My students and I have a lot of conversations about it at the beginning of the year. They need to be more responsible to uphold the high expectations I have for them, because I’m going to be away at some point during the year.”  

As challenging as it is, Pagel sees benefits for himself and his students.  

“It’s amazing that I’m able to serve in the military and teach,” Pagel says. “Both of my jobs have such a great impact on people—not everyone has a career where they feel that. Everything I do is making a difference and making the world a better place, whether I’m teaching 120 kids history or I’m saving lives in the Coast Guard.”  

Kindergarten Marine 

In the June 2023 edition of the NJEA Review, Atlantic City kindergarten teacher Alphonso Harrell shared his experiences as a Marine who is now in education.  

“One of the things that benefited me in the Marine Corps was the emphasis on leadership,” Harrell said. “In my classroom, we are building leaders. I’m there to nurture and guide them, but the emphasis is on learning what you need to do and doing it.” 

Marine veteran and kindergarten teacher Alphonso Harrell outside his Atlantic City classroom.

Harrell, who is currently running for the New Jersey General Assembly in the Second Legislative District, is not only creating leaders in his classroom, but he is also modeling leadership for his students through his involvement in the Atlantic City Education Association, numerous NJEA committees and the NJEA Members of Color Network.  

“I think the military benefited me because it allowed me to travel to various countries and learn about other cultures,” he said. “Being an educator, you have to accept everyone for who they are and where they come from. Particularly in New Jersey’s public schools, we are educating a cross-section of the world. Once you’ve been exposed to the way that other people live, work, speak and survive, you really just see people as human beings. Whatever differences there might be are inconsequential.

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to njea.org. She can be reached at kcoulibaly@njea.org

NJEA Patriots Alliance 

In 2017, NJEA created the Patriots Alliance, a coalition of NJEA members who served in the Armed Forces and are now working in public education. The Patriots Alliance currently numbers more than 250 members. It helps to inform veterans of their rights and benefits under the law and advocate for their interests. In addition, members of the Patriots Alliance are available to speak at schools and provide valuable insight into careers in the military. Learn more at njea.org/patriots.

NJEA advocates for veterans 

Over the years, NJEA’s political engagement has benefited military veterans. Thanks to NJEA’s vigorous advocacy, New Jersey public school employees who have served in the military receive four years of service credit. This helps boost their pensions and seniority. While this credit currently only exists for certificated staff, NJEA continues to advocate for educational support professionals to receive the same benefits.