by Spc. Tnangachi Mfuni
When Master Sgt. David Birkman of Oak Grove showed up at combat outpost Bowri Tanah in Eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers of Company C 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, handed the 56-year-old a cane and a handicap sign.
While Birkman’s far from geriatric, the silver-haired civil affairs reservist stands out on the tiny coalition post where many of the soldiers are half his age. Among the Afghan soldiers, Birkman has earned the moniker, “The elder of Bowri Tana.”
More than Birkman’s seniority, it is his stories that single him out. A veteran who served during the Vietnam era, a public school teacher of autistic kids and an ordained minister, Birkman engages troops at Bowri Tanah with a manner that is a mixture of all three.
“You can sit back and have a conversation with him for hours,” said 1st Sgt. Don Samuelson.
With a father who served in the Navy during World War II, an uncle who fought in Korea and a cousin who lost both legs in Vietnam, serving is more than a duty for Birkman, it is in his blood.
Days after graduating high school in the farm town of Advance, Mo., Birkman enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantryman, never mind that going to war was not the most popular thing to do in 1974.
“I rebelled against so many people’s attitudes,” Birkman said.
He was disappointed the conflict was pretty much over by the time he finished his initial training. Although he never went to Vietnam, like many service members of his generation, he still felt the ire of Americans who bitterly opposed the conflict.
“We were treated badly, very badly by civilians at large,” he said. “Soldiers today don’t understand what it’s like not to have the support of your country behind you.”
After a four-year tour with the Marines, Birkman returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in social studies, followed by a master’s degree in special education. While pursuing his studies and a teaching career, he joined the Army reserves where his experiences have run the gamut from drill sergeant, to cavalry scout, to air defense artillery and finally, assignment as a civil affairs team leader.
Although Birkman has amassed 30 years of military experience that includes a 16-month tour in Iraq, perhaps nothing has prepared him more for his current deployment than teaching in the Minneapolis public school system.
Among autistic middle school kids he works with, Birkman is simply known as “Mr. B” or “Mr. David.”
Birkman said many of the children he works with come from households that are at the poverty level. He describes the North Minneapolis neighborhoods where he’s spent most of his career teaching as being troubled by gangs and drugs. Some of his students were shot at in a play ground. Another of his students had a brother gunned down while walking home.
Birkman’s school stories sound a lot like the ballads of war. He teaches autistic children with an array of issues — physical, emotional and psychological. He talks about the time he talked down a student who threatened the life of a schoolmate with a pocket knife, the suicidal student who would lick his finger and try to stick it in a socket, the student who bit him, the student who nearly drowned him and this doesn’t include the ones who have thrown punches at him, trashed his classroom or cursed him out.
While Birkman’s military training has helped when trying to keep challenged kids in line, it’s his heart that has kept him in the classroom for 20 years.
“My teaching lends itself towards my spirituality,” said Birkman.
A Christian, actively involved in church from youth, Birkman is ordained as a Baptist minister.
“My heart just really goes out those people who needed a break, who need help,” he said, “There’s a sense of mercy and grace, a desire to raise them up when clearly, they’ve not been dealt such a good hand in life.”
Sometimes on Sunday evenings at Bowri Tanah, Birkman can be found leading a small Bible study among the infantrymen. At a post so small it has no chapel, chaplain, or worship service Birkman helps to fill the spiritual void.
His spirituality permeates all Birkman does.
“His maturity level and patience allows him to approach an issue not just from one or two angles, but from five or six,” said Birkman’s commander, U.S. Army Maj. Peter Masich.
As Birkman looks ahead to the end of his military career — the Army requires most reservists to retire by 60 — he can tell you some of the things he’ll miss, like globe-trekking.
What he won’t miss are the aches he feels when going on a patrol in full gear. Neither will he miss the long separations from his wife of 27 years and their daughter, currently in her first year of college.
“His family has sacrificed almost 30 years of their lives supporting the military,” said Samuelson, reflecting on the breadth of Birkman’s time in service. “Thirty years is a pretty damn good career.”