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Close to the topic

When members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized 14 members of the British Royal Navy in the Persian Gulf on March 23, adjunct professor Bill Kirtley of Medford knew he had a great topic of discussion for his government class.

His students were sailors and Marines aboard the USS Boxer, an amphibious ship providing security in the gulf within 50 miles of where the Brits were seized.

"That made it immediate — our ship was doing what the British sailors had been doing," the retired Medford high school teacher observed.

"The students were very excited, very interested," added Kirtley, 66. "We got the maps out and talked about how nations solve problems. It's not often you get a topic of discussion that is so real, so vital and so close."

Kirtley's 82 students were enrolled in his eight-week American government and political science courses through Central Texas College. The Navy provides the courses in its Program Afloat for College Education classes. Other classes include liberal arts, math, sociology, history and language. He returned home April 15.

Kirtley began teaching college courses aboard U.S. Navy ships in 1998 after retiring from the Medford School District, were he taught at North and South Medford high schools for 30 years.

Kirtley has a doctorate in political science from Idaho State University and a master's in history from the University of Oregon.

While he wanted to teach at the college level, he also wanted to remain anchored in Medford, where his wife, Pat, is a medical technician.

"I wanted to do something with adventure and excitement," he said. "When this job came up, it was perfect."

The Boxer, whose home port is San Diego, where it is currently bound, is the flagship for the Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group. The group is conducting maritime security operations in support of the U.S. 5th Fleet, according to the Navy.

Kirtley already knew his way in the military world, having served 30 years in the Army Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.

Most of his time aboard ship is spent leading classroom discussions, correcting papers and preparing lessons for his classes.

His days are sometimes interrupted by man-overboard drills, abandon-ship drills and battle drills lasting three or four hours. Given the fact the nation is now at war, the drills are taken very seriously, he said.

Harrier aircraft periodically roared off the ship. Strong winds rocked the ship and several sandstorms coated it with a fine brown dust, forcing the sailors to clean the entire vessel, he said.

Liberty was at Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where Kirtley and several members of the crew visited a luxurious mall that featured an indoor ski slope. The ship's doctor and one of the chaplains accompanied him on a sunset safari that featured off-road driving over sand dunes, followed by an Arab barbecue complete with belly dancers, he added.

But the seizure of the British sailors by the Iranians who charged they were in Iranian waters, a charge the British government rejected, heightened tension aboard ship, he said.

"They were on really high alert," he said of the Boxer's crew. "My wife e-mailed me, kept me apprised of the situation. She kept e-mailing stories out of the Mail Tribune and Yahoo."

During the classes, his students empathized with the British sailors captured by Iran, he said. The sailors were released on April 4.

"We talked about the structure and functions of different governments, including theocracies and democracies," he said. "They asked significant questions on sovereignty, legitimacy and the use of power by nation states."

Before heading back to the states, the Boxer picked up a Marine expeditionary unit in Kuwait which it had dropped off more than a year ago, he said. The Marines, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., had spent the previous year in Anbar province in Iraq, he added.

"When they came on board, covered with the dust of the desert and with their weapons in hand, it was very immediate and tangible proof we are war," he observed.

Kirtley, who took a helicopter from the ship to Kuwait City, where he would start his long journey home aboard commercial flights, said the crew was happy to be sailing homeward after the long deployment.

"One of my students told me he would see his child for the first time," he said.

Like his students in uniform, Kirtley will be ready to return to a ship when the Navy needs him again later this year to provide college courses.

"I still enjoy teaching — I have some great students out there," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Bill Kirtley teaches American government to sailors and Marines aboard the USS Boxer in this U.S. Navy photo dated March 27.