FAIRFIELD — Fairfield native David Messerli was promoted to the position of Colonel in the Iowa National Guard during a ceremony Oct. 25, 2019.
Local residents may remember Messerli from his time as a student in Fairfield and later as an instructor at Fairfield High School, where he taught anatomy, physiology and other subjects. Messerli taught at the school from the late 1980s until 2003, when he was deployed to Iraq.
Messerli spent a year working at a medical clinic just outside the city of Balad, Iraq, north of Baghdad. Upon returning to the U.S., he left teaching to devote his full attention to the National Guard. He has held a number of jobs in the National Guard such as being in charge of a medical battalion, a recruiter, a deputy chief of staff, and others. He now lives in Grimes, where he works as the Iowa National Guard’s director of human resources.
Messerli was born in Maryville, Missouri, to parents Linda and Ralph Messerli. His father wrestled at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, and was the school’s assistant dean of men when David was born. A few years later when David was just a toddler, the family moved to Fairfield, where David spent the rest of his upbringing.
“Fairfield is the only home I know,” he said.
David has two siblings, a brother Darin who is now a teacher and coach in Oklahoma, and a sister Dana Miller who teaches in Marion, Iowa. After moving to Fairfield, the family lived on an acreage. Messerli has fond memories of raising animals, and participating in 4-H and in sports, especially wrestling.
Messerli graduated from Fairfield High School in 1981. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in science education from the University of Northern Iowa in 1986. In the fall of 1988, he began teaching science courses at his alma mater, Fairfield High School. His primary classes were anatomy and physiology, but he also taught biology, physics and physical science.
By this time, Messerli was married with two young girls, Beth and Kate. He and his wife Diane saw that the family could use a little extra spending money, so Messerli looked into part-time and seasonal jobs he could do over the summer.
Messerli thought back to an encounter he had with a man in town nine years earlier. When he was 17, he went to pick up his sister from a babysitting assignment at the home of Doug Wahl, who lived down the road. Wahl was a recruiter for the Iowa National Guard, and asked Messerli that day if he had ever given any thought to enlisting.
“I was a smart aleck, and I told him that if I were going to join anything, it would be the Air Force,” Messerli recalls.
Messerli remembered that conversation nine years later, and picked up the phone to call Wahl. Messerli asked what he had to do to join.
“My folks are really patriotic, but I hadn’t seriously thought about the military as a career,” Messerli said. “I knew we needed some extra funds, and I thought it would be good to see what the Guard has to offer. I knew it was one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, which worked with my schedule as a teacher.”
Messerli had “no clue” what he wanted to do for a job in the National Guard. The one that caught his eye was medic. After all, Messerli was already teaching anatomy to high schoolers. If he became a medic, he could even incorporate that experience into his classroom lessons. It was a perfect fit. Messerli enlisted in the National Guard in December of 1989, and did his basic training in the summer of 1990 at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
The plan was to do his medic training the following summer in 1991, but events in the Middle East sent him on a different path. Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. The U.S. and a coalition of other countries prepared an attack on Iraq’s forces in Kuwait. Messerli was with the 224th Engineers Battalion in Fairfield, which was activated to go to Germany.
“They pulled me out of my classroom in January of 1991 and sent me to Fort Sam Houston to do my medic training,” he recalled.
The war ended before Messerli and his unit could arrive in the Middle East.
The next 10 years were a time of relative calm. Messerli continued to advance within the National Guard. When he joined in 1989, his intent was to serve for six years and then get out. At the end of his six years, he had to decide whether or not he would re-enlist. He and Diane had a more comfortable financial cushion than when Messerli enlisted. His wife told him he should only re-enlist in the National Guard if he enjoyed it.
“The fact was that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the leadership training and the people I was working with,” said Messerli, who signed up for another six years.
Messerli was a medic for seven years, and in 1997 became a medical service officer. Meanwhile, he continued teaching at Fairfield High School, where his father was the principal. Ralph visited David’s classroom frequently.
“He was very dedicated to education and to keeping our students on track,” Messerli said about his father. “I learned a ton from him and my mom, who was also in education.”
David’s mother Linda was a teacher’s aide and an elementary school secretary. David’s wife Diane is in education, too, having worked as a guidance counselor at Fairfield Middle School, and who now teaches English as a second language at Dallas Center Grimes.
“My kids saw their grandma in elementary, their mother in middle school, and their dad and grandpa in high school,” Messerli said. “They couldn’t get away with anything.”
Deployment to Iraq
Messerli taught at FHS until he was called out of the classroom once again, this time in January of 2003. The U.S. was preparing to go to war against Iraq. Messerli prepared notes for the substitute teacher who would take over his role. He didn’t know how long he would be gone. As it turned out, that day was Messerli’s last in a classroom. After his deployment to Iraq, he has spent the past 15-plus years as a full-time National Guardsman.
Messerli’s battalion set up medical clinics at different bases in Iraq. The clinics treated mostly U.S. soldiers and occasionally some Iraqi civilians. The battalion was headquartered in the city of Balad, north of the capital city of Baghdad. That’s where Messerli spent most of his time.
His assignment in Iraq lasted one year during which he did not come home. Messerli said it was tough to be away from his family so long, but at the same time, he felt it was his duty. He was an officer, after all, and couldn’t stand the thought of getting in line to go home before his fellow soldiers, some of whom were waiting to see newborn sons and daughters.
“I felt those soldiers should have the opportunity to go home,” Messerli said.
While in Iraq, Messerli had a boss named Joel Harris. The two would walk to the chow hall together each day for lunch. Every day, Harris pestered Messerli about joining the National Guard full-time.
“At one point I said, ‘If you quit bothering me about this, I promise that if a job opens up when we get back, I’ll apply for it,’” Messerli remembers. “I didn’t think there’d be a job when we got back.”
Sure enough, Harris found a job for Messerli when the two returned to the States. Harris reminded him that he promised to apply, and Messerli kept his word. The position was for an officer in charge of the battalion they had just been working with in Iraq. Messerli applied for the job and was accepted.
He did that job until 2008 when he was deployed again, this time to Egypt, where he spent a year. In 2017, Messerli began working in human resources, and now he is the human resources director for the Iowa National Guard.
“Like every other company that has an HR director, I do the same stuff, it’s just for the army,” he said. “We’ve got approximately 9,500 soldiers and airmen in the Iowa National Guard, and about 2,300 of those are full-time. They need HR support, such as hiring people, discipline and firing. We deal with all their paperwork.”
On Oct. 25, Messerli was promoted to the rank of Colonel. There are only five full-time colonels in the Iowa National Guard on its army side.
This December, Messerli will celebrate 30 years with the National Guard, and 18 years of active duty. Within a couple of years, he’ll be able to retire. What will he do after that? Messerli has a lot of experience in many fields thanks to his career in the guard. He might continue his work in human resources, or he might return to the classroom.
“I’ve had a great life,” Messerli said. “The army has afforded us lots of opportunities to do and see things. We’ve lived in big towns and small towns. Our kids have been blessed with opportunities the Good Lord has provided us. I’ve taken a weird career path, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”