The playground behind the school is filled with the beautiful noise of children. It’s a simple playground covered with swings, slides, and young children chasing each other around a sandbox. They are the sons and daughters of America’s soldiers. A car drives by and the children stop playing. They stretch their necks to see if a parent deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has returned home. The hardest game played at Fort Benning is the waiting game.
I am greeted at the fort’s middle school by a group of children who serve as a welcoming committee. One tall boy is eager to show me a colorful blend of pastels hung on the wall. A soldier is hugging a child and the sun is drawn with a large smiley face. “That’s my daddy and me,” he says proudly. I later learn that the boy’s father is in Afghanistan and soon his mother will be deployed to Iraq. He is among the 1.7 million American children who have a parent serving in the military
“Who will watch the boy?” I asked.
A 7th grade teacher who has taught at Fort Benning for over 30 years takes my question in stride. “It’s not uncommon that children have both parents deployed; he will be watched by his grandmother.”
War is always hardest on children. According to a White House estimate, about 900,000 children have had one or both parents deployed multiple times. Once upon a time a child would slowly raise a solitary hand and waved goodbye to a father sent off to war; today children wave goodbye with both hands.
Fort Benning is a massive military installation and is home to the United States Army Infantry Center and School, a place where young men and women quickly learn that all fighting begins and ends on the ground. General Patton once lived and studied at Fort Benning. Old Blood and Guts must have been a good student because what he learned at Fort Benning would eventually help defeat the Nazis and restore democracy to Western Europe. I drive pass his former house and see a child’s bicycle on the front porch. A young officer and his family now occupy the famous general’s house and I wonder if his son or daughter was at the school playground.
My tour guide is Dr. Dell McMullen, the Georgia/Alabama district superintendent of DoDEA schools. Dell is intelligent, charming, and living proof that humans do not need to consume potent energy drinks to display vitality and force. I am informed that there are seven schools located at Fort Benning, each belonging to the Department of Defense Education Activity, a rather unique school district that covers the globe and serves the children of military service members and Department of Defense civilian employees. DoDEA and DDESS (Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools) operate 191 schools in 14 districts located in 12 foreign countries, seven states, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Over 8,700 educators work very hard to educate and comfort more than 84,000 students struggling to live and learn in a world unique to military families.
I quickly learn that a soldier’s child inhabits a place few civilians can fully comprehend because we do not walk in their shoes or mark kitchen calendars with deployment days. My students study global issues, see images of war and natural disasters, listen to the voices of politicians and pundits, and discuss the political and economic machinations that guide the destinies of nations. But we are largely spectators to a dangerous world and do not share the pain felt by the children of the brave men and women who serve our country. The pain of wondering if a car bomb exploding in Iraq will mark the end of a family’s nightly ritual of placing X’s on the kitchen calendar. Or the agony of wondering if a Taliban sniper has his scope aimed at mom or dad.
Dr. Dell McMullen points to a large tower. “Would you like to jump from that?” she asked.
The 250-foot drop tower is called a “Free Tower” and it is used to train paratroopers assigned to the Airborne School. The tower seems to poke through the alabaster clouds. If Fort Benning is a cathedral to generations of infantry, the tower is its spire.
“No.” I answered softly. My thoughts keep returning to the young children at the playground and to their teachers. The DoDEA teachers are truly a special breed of educator who make me proud to be called a teacher.
Life during wartime has traditionally affected the population of an entire nation and its people shared the burdens of pain and loss. We are no longer a people at war as much as we are a nation at war. A minority of brave men and women do the fighting and their children suffer the grief and deprivation of loneliness. It is a heavy burden.
I return to the middle school and once again must pass the playground. The children stop playing and stretch their necks to see who is in my car. I wish I had a parent to bring home.
I wish all our military personnel a safe and healthy Memorial Day. You are in my prayers and your children are in the care of so many wonderful teachers.
The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.