WILLIAMSBURG - Thad White likes to help people and learn about other cultures.
As a junior at Bellwood-Antis High School, White was a foreign exchange student and lived on a farm in Poland.
White, 34, agricultural science teacher at Williamsburg High School since 2001, recently returned from a year in Baghdad as an adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
Thad White stands along the broken down water pump on the banks of the Diyala River. The Diyala River eventually ends up in the Tigris River not far from where this picture was taken.
White, who took a leave of absence from his teaching job, served as an agricultural adviser with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team and worked side-by-side with U.S. military and government civilians as well as the Iraqi government and numerous non-governmental organizations. He helped with programs that are helping shape the future of Iraqi agriculture.
While in Iraq, White said he did a lot of work with widows and disadvantaged women and taught them how to preserve food through canning. He also helped start a pasta-making course and helped educate children about agriculture.
White, who lives in Bellwood, said he had to take a course to familiarize himself with Iraq and a course on weaponry and defensive driving to learn how to get out of ambush or kidnapping situations.
He said he didn't realize the importance of the mission which he volunteered for, until he arrived in Iraq as part of the reconstruction team.
"There were guys with doctorates and guys who had 25 years of experience in the field," White said. "I didn't realize until I got there that this was something special. We were treated like VIPs."
White said he lived in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and never felt he was in any danger.
He called the trip a really good experience.
"I worked in the field with Iraqis. I got to work with them every day. I enjoyed learning about their culture and their views on the world," White said. "It was very humbling; I mingled with the locals and saw all of the nooks and crannies of Baghdad. We did everything to the best of our ability to talk to the civilians to make a difference."
He felt the mission was successful.
"I kept in my mind every minute I was there that there were things I needed to do. I worked every minute I could; I walked away believing I was successful in what I did. I was very pleased; every day was something new," White said. "We did all we could to make it work."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recognized the efforts of White and the other volunteers.
"These USDA employees have played a vital role in furthering political and social stability throughout the world by building a foundation on which the economies of these countries will prosper, Vilsack said in a statement."
White said although he did not speak Arabic, he didn't have any issues with language because of his highly skilled interpreter, an American woman.
"I couldn't have done any of my work without my interpreter," White said. "She was in tune with the women of Baghdad."
White said he wished he could have done more during his year in Iraq.
"You weren't able to get out as much as you wanted to because of the threats. That is the nature of the area - it is a volatile area," White said. "That was the biggest challenge, not being able to do as much as we could. We could have done more."
He called the experience fulfilling.
"I learned so much. It was fulfilling to see the Iraqis. They opened their minds to things," White said. "When we saw how appreciative the people were, that was so fulfilling."
White said he appreciated the support from back home as people from throughout the area sent him things to give to the Iraqi people.
"They sent me a roomful of things to be distributed. The amount of toys and things for kids was unbelievable. We donated to schools and orphanages; the goodwill thing was like the cement. It was an absolute bonus," White said. "The people were glad to see you when you went out."
Students in White's agriculture classes soon will learn more about Iraq.
"When things slow down, I will incorporate things I have learned and the experiences into my class plan," White said. "The kids like listening but they haven't heard anything yet."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.