High school students leave a tough question unanswered

Four young men who went through the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program have died in combat. Their instructor keeps their memories close.
By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The young warriors have been dead for months, even years, but still the flag at Magruder High School in Rockville flies at half-staff.

Normally, it would have been raised long ago, but the old soldier doesn't care. The dead, all four of them, participated in his Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Magruder. Then they enlisted. Then they went to war. Then they were killed.

So retired Army Sgt. Maj. John Ohmer keeps Old Glory as a symbol of mourning in a courtyard across the hall from a glass-encased memorial he has created for his former cadets.

He hopes that students shuffling past on the way to class might stop and wonder why the flag is always lowered. Maybe they'll see something of themselves in the young faces staring back through the glass.

The flag and pictures of the dead are Ohmer's unwritten homework assignment for the school: What do the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean to you?

That question can draw blank stares at a time when the wars aren't front and center and fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in the armed forces. The wars seem particularly distant in affluent areas such as Montgomery County, where some parents have fought to keep military recruiters out of the schools.

But Ohmer says he thinks the question is essential, especially at Magruder, which has lost four of its recent alumni in combat, more than any other JROTC program in the region.

If war is going to resonate in any American high school, it should do so here.

Failing the test

So, pop quiz: How many in Anne Shanahan's fifth-period computer applications class can name a city in Iraq?

Among 20 students, nine hands go up.

"Baghdad," one student says.

Can anyone name another?

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