For one Troy University history professor and alumnus, “the field” is taking on a new meaning.
Dr. Charles E. “Doc” Merkel’s “interesting twist” in his job as wing historian for the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida sent him to Afghanistan through January.
Deployed is the exact term, but Dr. Merkel, who has served as an adjunct professor at TROY for 22 years, is a civilian employee of the wing and will assume the duties of the historian of the newly organized 451st Expeditionary Wing.
“It’s hard to believe that I get paid to do something that I love to do,” he said, noting that his academic focus was on U.S. military history. “This is a brand new wing and I’ll capture the history of it for future generations.”
Designated a group of the 51st until this past July, the 451st is in the middle of harm’s way; but Dr. Merkel is no stranger to conflict.
Some 30 years ago, Dr. Merkel was a helicopter pilot in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Casper Platoon in Vietnam.
The experience set him up with a unique ability to connect with his students.
“In my courses, we look at historic events as a jig saw puzzle. Each student will have a piece of that puzzle and become an expert on a particular event or person; then they can share what they have learned through original research – and that sticks with them a long time,” he said. “My goal is not to make historians out of each student but to motivate them enough that, when they see a historic marker ‘one mile ahead,’ they’ll pull off and read it.”
While Dr. Merkel admits the approach may be different from that of other history instructors, a key element to it is a weekly chat session online. So popular are the chat sessions that he’s had students deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to join the real-time sessions – of course, in the middle of the night for them. If a session is missed, it’s archived on the Web page to be gleaned later.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is the reaction of the students – they know they have my undivided attention and it’s like being in class with them,” he said.
While his job as historian might be his primary mission on his deployment, “Doc,” as he is almost universally known throughout the wing, has an equally important, yet personal, mission – to aid the children of Afghanistan.
It’s something he started doing when he was in Vietnam, even stretching his stay in Southeast Asia for as long as the Army would allow to work in two orphanages – one Protestant, the other Buddist.
His plan is to work with the wing chaplain to assist with some of the orphanages there in hopes of providing a better life for the children.
“I know I can’t do it all but I’ll do what I can,” Dr. Merkel said.
Lusk is a university relations coordinator.