High school students leave a tough question unanswered

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; B01

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?


How many can name a city in Afghanistan?

This time, four hands.

"Kabul," says one student.

"That's what I was going to say," another says.

Why are we at war in Afghanistan?

"Because of the attacks of 9/11," a boy replies.

And Iraq?

"Honestly, that's something I don't know," he says. "Oil, maybe. Helping companies in America. But I'm not sure if that's true."

Shanahan is disappointed but not surprised. Her students have spring fever. It's just before lunch, the day of the senior banquet at Dave & Buster's, the day before Senior Skip Day.

War isn't foremost on their minds. College is. Posters in the hallway steer students toward a bright future on the manicured campuses of Princeton, Carnegie Mellon and Bates. New York University has a study abroad program in Shanghai. "Have you registered for the ACT or SAT?" a flier asks. "Don't wait."

The students are closer to puberty than the legal drinking age. What would they know of war?

Shanahan remembers how Justin Davis, one of her favorites, occasionally came to class wearing his uniform. In it, he looked like an adult. It was easy to forget how young he was.

"The year he graduated, he was asking for a bathroom pass," Shanahan says. "Six months later, he was fighting for his country."

'They don't have a clue'

War doesn't resonate with Steve Hobson's students.

"They don't have a clue," the social studies teacher says. "They honestly don't have a clue, and it bothers me."

They don't often watch the news, he says, and even if they did, events in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't on so much anymore. Plus, there's no conscription, as there was when he was younger.

"Everybody was aware [of the Vietnam War] because we were all at risk of being drafted," he says. This generation is "built around their iPod, cellphone and computer. They're not aware of what's going on."

Spencer Datt is aware. Three or four times a week, he catches news about Iraq or Afghanistan. But it doesn't mean that war looms large. He has been accepted early to High Point University in North Carolina, and he wonders who his roommate is going to be. What classes will be like. What he'll major in.

Datt was 9 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. He's 17 now, and for most of his life, the United States has been at war. He makes no distinction between pre- and post-9/11. He doesn't remember what air travel used to be like. He doesn't remember Washington without the Jersey barriers.

War isn't new or pressing or different. War is constant, which makes it normal. "It's been built into our everyday lives," he says.

Although he knows no one who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, he has friends in JROTC and supports those who enter the military. "You have to be thankful there are people willing to do what you won't," he says.

Meanwhile, he has statistics homework: "The square of a number decreased by half the number can be expressed as . . .?"

A mother's response

Paula Davis wanted her son to know what he was getting into. She clipped stories from the newspaper when soldiers were buried at Arlington National Cemetery and left them for him on the dining room table. She circled the casualty counts in dark ink.

"I want you to see this isn't a game," she told him. "It's not an adventure. You're my only kid. You could get killed."

She wanted him to go to college, but he was determined to enlist. He wanted to serve, to see the front lines. Then he'd go to college, he told his mother. Then he'd live the rest of his life. "He thought he was invincible," Davis said.

Now his photo is encased in the hallway memorial, a reminder, like his mother's news clippings, of war's consequences.

Augusto Beltrame walks past that photo almost every day. He is 18, a year younger than Justin Davis was when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, and just as determined to enlist.

He rattles off his reasons like a recruiter. The Army will teach him leadership and discipline. It will provide him with job training and benefits such as the GI Bill. All that might have convinced him, but not his mother, who sees something conspicuously absent from the way he describes what the Army will be like.

"You can't just look at the positives," Renata Beltrame tells her son in Portuguese. You have to look at the whole picture, and that includes war: "It's dangerous."

But what can she do? Her son's mind is made up. He might have been born in Brazil, but he grew up in the States and is every bit a young American who wants to serve his adopted country.

Augusto has orders to report to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on June 23, three weeks after graduation, but he already looks like a soldier. He keeps his hair high and tight. His JROTC uniform has six rows of ribbons and five medals awarded in competitions. He polishes his shoes with window cleaner so they'll shine even in Magruder's dull fluorescent lighting.

And yet he has never fired a gun. He knows he could end up at war, but he can't name a single city in Iraq. He pronounces Kabul "Ka-doo." Camouflage uniforms hang in his bedroom closet, but his shelves are stocked with model cars and a stuffed animal his girlfriend gave him. His mother still washes and folds his underwear. Before he enlisted, the biggest event in his life, he says, was getting a driver's license.

For his mother, the contradictions amount to a parental paradox: How does she reconcile her instinct to protect her child with the need to let him live his life?

She went through the stages of grief -- denial, then anger, then begrudging acceptance -- as if his enlistment were tantamount to a death sentence. Although she still hopes he'll change his mind, she has decided, as Paula Davis did, to support her son. There's no choice, really. He's 18, an adult. The decision is his.

Now it's the son's turn to protect the mother. Augusto Beltrame hasn't told her about the four Magruder JROTC cadets killed in these wars. He doesn't talk about the fact that his Army job is going to be motor transport operator -- one of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where bombs in the road can land you in Ohmer's memorial at Magruder.

But Augusto doesn't dwell on the fallen. Especially not with final exams, graduation and Beach Week on the horizon. He has a hotel room in Ocean City reserved. His girlfriend is coming.

"I can't wait," he says.

From this safe distance, war doesn't seem so bad.

The bell rings. Students spill out of their classes and cram the hallway, which fills with a cacophony of carefree banter as they move past college posters, past SAT signs, past the flag at half-staff and the pictures of the dead.

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