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Service to Students and Country: Honoring TASD’s Veterans

Alyssa Houck
Mr. Rudy Bilka served in the Unites States Army. One of his most memorable experiences was a deployment to South Korea, where he patrolled the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. (Inset photo courtesy of Rudy Bilka)

Veterans Day is a time to honor the service of past and present members of the US military, and the Tyrone Area School District is fortunate to have several teachers and staff members who also served the nation in the military before joining the staff at TASD.

Three district employees who also had military service are teachers Victoria Isenberg and Rudy Bilka, and school crossing guard Ralph VanAllman.

Each has a unique story about their time in military service.

Isenberg, a math and science teacher at the middle school, joined the United States Air Force not long after graduating from high school.

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According to Isenberg, her military career began with a desire for adventure and service.

“I wanted to change my life and do something that was meaningful,” Isenberg said.

Victoria Isenberg is a fifth grade math and science teacher who served in the USAF before getting into the field of education. (Alyssa Houck)
Victoria Isenberg is a fifth-grade math and science teacher who served in the USAF before getting into the field of education. (Alyssa Houck)

Her decision to join the Air Force was influenced by the appeal of the branch, mixed with a little bit of youthful naivety.

“I didn’t know a lot about all of the branches, but I thought the Air Force sounded the coolest. I was 20!” Isenberg said.

Basic training in the military can be a grueling experience, but Isenberg understood its importance, even if she didn’t like it.

“Sleep deprivation was the worst. I love to sleep, but if we are attacked, I cannot sleep. Basic training is meant to prepare you for war. War is hard,” Isenberg said.

Isenberg served in Texas and Alaska, and one of her most memorable experiences was her wedding, which took place at the base chapel during a live ammunition training exercise.

“There were artillery attacks during our vows,” Isenberg said.

While she received some basic medals and citations, she emphasized the most important thing she learned from her time in the military is the value of service beyond oneself.

“It isn’t about money or prestige; it is about helping those that can’t help themselves,” Isenberg said.

Rudy Bilka is an English teacher in the middle school. He joined the US Army for the experience in engineering that it offered.

When asked about basic training, he simply said, “One day at a time.”

His most memorable deployment took him to South Korea, where he and his unit helped to defend the demilitarized zone with their engineering skills.

One of the most valuable experiences he had in the military was the opportunity to learn a different culture, which he noted was a profound change in his perspective of the world.

Bilka was awarded several medals and citations during his service, including the Army Service Ribbon, and the Korean Service Medal.

Bilka reenlisted for a 2nd tour of duty on the Freedom Bridge that crosses the Imjin River separating North and South Korea (photo courtesy of Rudy Bilka)

Reflecting on the day his service ended, Bilka felt a mix of emotions, saying, “It felt sad. It was something that was larger than myself, [but] I was anxious and excited to start a new career,” he said.

Bilka recommends military service to any young person who is unsure of their post-high school plans, emphasizing that the discipline and valuable life lessons that can be gained through military service are transferable to many jobs and careers.

Ralph VanAllman, who is employed as a crossing guard at the TASD campus, joined the Navy in the early 80s when job opportunities for young people in the area were scarce.

His decision was influenced by his family. “I chose the Navy because I thought it would be the best fit for raising a family,” VanAllman said.

Basic training in hot and humid Orlando, Florida, was tough, but he persevered, knowing that his family depended on him.

During his service, he was deployed to Cuba and embarked on a six-month Mediterranean tour, visiting Italy, Turkey, Israel, and other European countries.

He fondly remembers the friendships formed with shipmates from around the world and recounted a unique experience, when the ship he was on collided with an Ecuadorian tanker off the coast of Cuba in April 1985. The incident made international news and resulted in the demotion of several of the ship’s officers.

His service earned him several medals and awards, and the day his service ended was bittersweet, marking the beginning of a new chapter in his life.

VanAllman said that his military service prepared him for a disciplined and purposeful life, opening doors to employment and ultimately leading to his early retirement from a federal government job.

He reflects today on his military service with pride.

“I look back at it, I believe it was the best thing I ever did and probably the proudest time of my life,” VanAllman said.

Mr. Ralph VanAllman while a US Navy Sailor in the 1980s. VanAllman traveled around the world during his years of service. (Photo courtesy of Mr. VanAllman)

His message of hard work, discipline, and the value of the experiences gained through military service is a testament to the dedication of our veterans at Tyrone Area School District.

This Veterans Day, we express our deepest gratitude to Mrs. Isenberg, Mr. Bilka, and Mr. VanAllman, who not only served their country in military service but also served their communities and the nation by educating and protecting its youth.

Their service beyond themselves is priceless. Thank you for your dedication to our country and our students and thanks to all veterans who have served our country and continue to make a positive impact in our community.

I look back at it, I believe it was the best thing I ever did and probably the proudest time of my life

— Ralph VanAllman

This story was originally published on Tyrone Eagle Eye News on November 9, 2023.