High school in wartime sets soldiers’ kids apart

Published 8:49 am Friday, May 23, 2008

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — When Evelyn Burwell put on a cap and gown to accept her high school diploma, she knew someone wasn’t in the audience — her dad.

The 18-year-old’s father is serving in Iraq, like so many other parents of her classmates at Fort Campbell High School, the largest high school on an American military base. His service has meant missing two of his children’s high school graduations, countless anniversaries and birthdays, and this year, his daughter being crowned prom queen.

“You don’t even have to explain it most of the time; everybody feels the same way,” said Burwell.

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Burwell and the other students here understand their parents’ sacrifice, and there is an unspoken bond that allows them to vent their frustrations about the war and deployments. They may be graduating like millions of others across the country this spring, but their memories of school life in wartime set the class of 116 teenagers apart.

Most had at least one parent gone on lengthy deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan. Former classmates have gone on to fight, some dying in service. Students have watched as uniformed soldiers came to neighbors’ homes to notify families of war deaths.

Burwell’s father, Lt. Col. Dave Burwell, was able to watch his daughter graduate on a special Internet broadcast in Iraq. He hopes she and his other children understand why he couldn’t be there.

“I pray that my children will understand and appreciate that the sacrifices that they made during my years of deployment and service helped secure a bright future for their generation,” he said in an e-mail interview from Iraq.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean thousands of American teenagers have grown up without a military parent at home. Studies have shown that military family adolescents are very adaptive to deployments but are still prone to school performance problems or signs of depression.

Every student at Fort Campbell High has a parent in the military, and most of them grow up the moment a soldier mom or dad steps out the door. They take on extra chores at home, look after younger siblings, work jobs and set aside their own desires.

“Now I have to step up, be the man, take on the responsibilities,” says Josh McWherter, whose dad listened to him win the AA football state championship on the radio while deployed in Iraq. “I didn’t get the time I wish I could have had if he had been home for me to grow into those responsibilities, but I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Outside Fort Campbell High, the surrounding base bustles with activity as Humvees and trucks rumble past and the “Screaming Eagle” emblem of the 101st Airborne waves prominently on a flag at the school’s entrance.

Administrators know that problems at school can be intensified by a parent’s deployment. Teachers often act as counselors, adjusting to an individual student’s individual needs. But Fort Campbell High operates just like any other high school, and rules don’t get bent just because a student has a deployed parent.

“So if they come in and act out, that’s where our job really gets to be out of the cookie cutter recipe,” said principal David Witte.

McWherter says he doesn’t use his dad’s absence as an excuse for bad grades or getting stressed out.

“If we’re going to use that as an excuse, why couldn’t the whole school?” he said, shrugging. “I feel like you have to be responsible.”

Deployed parents make Fort Campbell students more aware of the war than their counterparts at nonmilitary high schools. Witte said the class was brought even closer together by the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of two former classmates, Pfc. Ron Joshua Jr. and Pfc. Timothy Vimoto, last summer.

Vimoto graduated in 2006 while Joshua spent two years at Fort Campbell High before transferring to a school in Texas. The two soldiers were honored by friends, teachers and coaches at a tearful memorial service at the school only weeks before graduation.

“When you know the people, it’s different than just hearing the news say another soldier died,” said Jesse Naputi, 17, a linebacker on the football team that Vimoto helped lead as a student manager. “That was your friend: you’ve got memories of him, you used to eat lunch with him, you used to play football with him, you were close. When they are gone, it’s not just another statistic.”

Darrissa Dodson, 17, said every death on the base creates stress among soldiers’ children. She recalled coming home after middle school one day and seeing two uniformed soldiers walking to a neighbor’s house, thinking it was odd that recruiters were visiting a home where only women lived.

“But then I stayed outside for a minute and I saw the girls run outside,” Dodson said, her eyes welling with tears as she recounted the memory. “They were crying and saying, ‘No, no, not us. It’s the wrong person.’ I realized that their dad had died and they had just found out. So that was hard on me and I didn’t even know them.”

The students voice little resentment over being without a parent during a time of war.

“My father doesn’t do an everyday job,” Naputi said. “Coming from a military childhood, it makes you that much more stronger. And that’s going to help me along in life. I wouldn’t want to change it, to tell you the truth. It’s something different — I’m proud of it.”