Little did Manawa Mayor Dave Sarna know when he deployed to Afghanistan last fall that his skills as a small-town politician would come in handy.
Though he’s assigned to a combat engineer unit, Sarna spent a few months as “mayor” of a forward operating base, running the U.S. military installation like any other community, albeit one smack dab in a war zone.
And he’s spent part of his deployment working with an Afghan Army engineer unit helping train them to take over road clearance duties and search for IEDs. Working with Afghan officers and interpreters required the diplomatic skills of a politician who served eight years on the Manawa city council before he was elected mayor.
“If you want to sum up the role of a mayor, you’re basically a problem-solver,” Sarna said in his office at this U.S. military base in Kandahar province. “But there’s a lot of pressure on you to make the right decision. Back home if you make a mistake, the worst that can happen is it’ll cost taxpayer dollars. Here a mistake can mean loss of life.”
About 15 months after he was elected mayor, a part-time job, he received his orders to deploy with the Wausau-based Army Reserve 428th Engineer Company. He previously served in Desert Storm and Iraq in 2006-’07 and didn’t have to go back to war.
But Sarna felt it was something he needed to do.
“I think the people in Manawa know this. I could have waived this deployment because I’m an elected official,” said Sarna, a sergeant.
“I felt Manawa would survive without me. I really looked at this deployment as a life-and-death situation. I’ve seen guys killed and wounded, and I thought maybe with my military experience I can help our soldiers and preserve life and limb.”
Sarna, 56, an automotive technology instructor at Fox Valley Technical College for 15 years, was replaced as mayor by the City Council president. Last April, Sarna declined to run for re-election while in Afghanistan, and another mayor was elected.
The Waupaca County community Sarna left behind for a year is known for its rodeo held every Fourth of July weekend, when the city grows from 1,300 to 13,000. It’s a community where people don’t lock their doors, a patriotic place proud of another of its sons, Melvin O. Handrich, who earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for his sacrifice in Korea. A plaque dedicated to Handrich is displayed in the center of town.
The county’s largest employer, Sturm Foods, is in Manawa, where 800 people manufacture flavored powdered drink sticks. Some of the company’s employees have family members serving in the military, and at Christmas several boxes of products, ranging from lemonade powder to oatmeal, were sent to Sarna to distribute to his fellow soldiers.
Bill Klemm owns the barber shop on the city’s main drag and has cut Sarna’s hair for years. Sarna ran for mayor because he wanted to get things done, said Klemm, a barber for 55 years.
Sitting up high in one of his chairs and smoking a cigarette after giving a customer a trim, Klemm said in an interview this month that he’s known the Sarna family for decades and recalled Sarna as an excellent mechanic at the Sarna family’s gas station in town.
“I imagine he was liked as a mayor because I didn’t hear much from customers,” Klemm said. “If he was doing something wrong I would’ve heard about it because you only hear about the bad stuff.”
Kirby Linjer has known Sarna since they were teenagers. Owner of the Sun Dawg Diner in town, Linjer saw Sarna when he was home on leave during the winter.
“He seemed proud of the work he was doing in Afghanistan,” said Linjer, taking a break from flipping hamburgers after the lunch rush. “We’re pretty proud of him, too.”
When Sarna was sent to a military base to be mayor of the installation soon after arriving in Afghanistan, he admitted he initially wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, because he has spent his 18-year military career mostly as a trainer and engineer.
He quickly learned that operating a base – making sure there’s electricity, water and security and the trash gets picked up – is the same as in any town. After a couple months he was sent back to FOB Pasab, where he was assigned to work with the Afghan army.
Capt. Jim Servi, commander of the 428th Engineer Company, said Sarna was the perfect fit for the liaison job between the American and Afghan military units.
“You need to deal with nuances” when working with other cultures, Servi said. “It’s not something we’re trained for in the military, but he works with people from all walks of life.”
Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Jones is on her seventh trip to the Middle East – four to Iraq and three to Afghanistan – to report on Wisconsin troops.