Schools Brace for Personal Toll In Iraq Conflict

By Michelle R. Davis — April 02, 2003 6 min read
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Under clear Kentucky skies last week, the Christian County Middle School band struck up a patriotic tune. Students in red, white and blue, holding American flags, lined the edges of the school’s circular driveway. They looked on, applauding, as about 150 students from military families passed before them in a parade that ran the length of the drive.

The “clap-out” was for students with a parent or relative on active duty in the United States’ war with Iraq. The impromptu ceremony is just one of several measures Principal Jada B. Mason and her staff at the Hopkinsville, Ky., school have taken to ease the stress of the conflict, which has become very personal for the 850 students there.

The 101st Airborne Division’s “Screaming Eagles” are based at nearby Fort Campbell, Ky., inside Christian County’s borders. But just now, a good number of those soldiers are fighting, or waiting to fight, in Iraq.

Already, two members of the division were killed and 15 others wounded in Kuwait on March 23, when an allegedly disgruntled military comrade tossed grenades into their tents. The fiancé of a Christian County Middle School teacher was injured in the incident, and the teacher has been absent from class since then, Ms. Mason said last week. Other students have parents in the 101st, she said.

“These are real people for us. These are people we care about,” the principal said. “I just don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”

‘Holding Our Breath’

For teachers, administrators, and students who live on and around the bases that are home to the military units sustaining the most casualties so far in the war, angst over lives lost and possible tragedies to come has become intimate and immediate.

In neighborhoods surrounding places like Camp Lejeune, N.C., home to Marines from the 2nd Expeditionary Force, which had seen 25 service members killed or wounded by press time last week, they’re not contemplating abstract heroes, but rather the loss of relatives, friends, or neighbors.

About 30 percent of the 21,800 students in North Carolina’s Onslow County school system come from military families, most connected to nearby Camp Lejeune, said district spokesman Pete Andrews. As of last week, no students in the Onslow schools had lost a parent in the war, he said.

“We’ve all just been holding our breath on what’s taking place,” he said. “The big fear is that we could lose a lot of people at one time.”

Fort Hood, in central Texas, was among the first military bases to get distressing news, when two helicopter pilots from the 227th Aviation Regiment, based there, were captured in Iraq.

That cut close to home for students at nearby Copperas Cove High School, where about 30 percent of the students are from military families.

“Right now, they’re handling it very well,” Carolyn Taylor, the school’s head counselor, said early last week of the war. At that time, no Copperas Cove High students had lost a relative in the war.

But Tyrees Spence, a senior at Copperas Cove, is nervous. Last week, he prepared to bid farewell to his mother and father, both being deployed to the Middle East.

“Everyday, I watch CNN,” he said. His parents, he said, may miss his graduation later this spring. He, of course, has other, more frightening concerns.

“It’s bad enough that my mom and dad are going to be away,” he said. Now, he said, another thought will prey on him: “Are they OK?”

Lessons From 1991

Palo Alto Middle School, in Killeen, Texas, also serves some military families from Fort Hood. For Priscilla A. Flores, a school counselor, this isn’t the first time she’s helped students through a war.

She worked at a nearby school during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and is taking steps to avoid mistakes she believes were made during that time. Back then, counselors met daily with students who had a family member deployed to the war, Ms. Flores said.

“The kids didn’t [always] want to talk about it, but we were being forced to discuss things with them,” she said. “It was too much. It was an emotional overload.”

Ms. Flores said she was trying to help maintain a sense of normality at her school, even while being attuned to the stresses and concerns of students. The school has scheduled after-school activities—"to keep them from just going home and watching TV,” she said— including support groups, for children with family members deployed for the war.

The school has decided to confine in-class discussions of the war largely to social studies classes.

Ms. Flores said students have many questions—and much to learn—about the Iraq conflict, the military, and the Middle East, as a late January survey of Palo Alto Middle School students suggests.

Among the questions from those students: Will a lot of people die? Why can’t we just sign a peace treaty? Why can’t we just send one big bomb and get rid of them?

And these: How come we have so many troops and soldiers and we can’t find one man? Why does my dad have to go when he’s been deployed twice before?

The Department of Defense schools—there are 69 on military bases in the United States—tackle those worries and others.

Since the first war casualties were announced, the Department of Defense Education Activity, as the system is known, has issued a moratorium to its schools on talking to the press. The point is to protect children, said DODEA spokeswoman Patricia Lambe.

“We want to be very sensitive to students at this time, and don’t want to encourage anything to focus negatively on a parent who might be missing,” Ms. Lambe said. “Everybody is being so protective right now.”

When a service member with a child in a DODEA school dies in a war, she added, there is specific protocol the school puts in place, though she declined to describe it.

The many regular public schools that also serve military bases, meanwhile, are seeking to cope with real or potential losses in their communities, as well as the limbo of uncertainty. About a dozen Army maintenance workers from Fort Bliss in west Texas were captured by the Iraqis during the first week of the war. The fate of some of them remains unknown.

Mark Emanuel Mendoza, the principal of Bliss Elementary School, which is located on the base but is not run by the Defense Department, said he had no information that any of his students were related to those soldiers.

But he said he was committed not just to helping students cope, but also to retaining a sense of everyday life.

“One of the most important things my school can provide for our students ... is to be kind of a rock for them, a stable influence,” Mr. Mendoza said. “While they’re here, it’s a little bit of an escape.”

Bliss Elementary, part of the El Paso school system, offers a counseling system to help students, but Mr. Mendoza said school personnel run it as “invisibly” as possible.

“We want children to get the help they need, but not draw additional attention [to them],” Mr. Mendoza said.

He said the entire school staff has been trained to help answer questions from students. The school is prepared, he said, for what may come: death or injury to one of the students’ parents.

“I have a counseling team of people from [the school district] standing by,” he said.

It’s not just students who are struggling.

Gail R. Yates, a life-skills teacher at Christian County Middle School, has a son who is a Marine helicopter mechanic now in Iraq. She keeps a picture of him on her classroom wall and feels a strong tie to students who have parents fighting in the war.

She said she has worked hard to keep her emotions under control in the classroom to provide an example for her students. But at home, when she’s watching the television coverage, it’s different.

“I don’t want to see a lot of casualties, ... but it’s so sad because you’re praying it’s someone else’s child,” Ms. Yates said. “I feel so guilty about that.”

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