Killeen Shoemaker, in the shadow of Fort Hood, is ground zero for the home front, a school where hundreds of students have parents who are deployed in Iraq and fear of death and danger is part of everyday life.
The national media is just catching up to what readers of Texas Monthly have known for quite some time: That Fort Hood is a microcosm of all the problems facing soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan—and facing the awful aftermath of war as well. The populations of Houston and Dallas and Austin can certainly go for weeks without thinking of the sacrifices our troops are making; in Killeen, the war is an inescapable event, 24/7, whether you are an officer on base or a clerk in a convenience store. The stress of wartime there is unavoidable.
Ours is now an all volunteer army, and the soldiers who train at this, the country’s largest army base, have had to cope for years now with a military fighting two wars on the cheap, with predictable results: unprecedented levels of alcoholism, family violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. Since the war in Iraq began in 2003, Texas Monthly has covered life in Ft. Hood, and the lives of soldiers who have trained there in great detail. Pam Colloff wrote movingly about life on base during wartime (“Life During Wartime,” February 2004), and Skip Hollandsworth investigated the military’s failure to provide much needed psychiatric aid to returning soldiers (“Casualty of War,” March 2006). To get a better understanding of the events that are currently unfolding, we suggest another look at these and other stories.
In March 2006, I chronicled the kids at Shoemaker High, where 80 percent of the students have a parent serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is their story. —Mimi Swartz, November 6, 2009
WHEN BARBARA CRITCHFIELD BECAME a high school guidance counselor at Killeen’s Shoemaker High School, five years ago, she probably never imagined she would be, in effect, working for the Army too, responsible for implementing one of its newest goals: to “encourage the courage of children.” Nor did she envision something like the Military Child Education Coalition, based in nearby Harker Heights, which helps parents who are deployed stay involved in their kids’ education. Now in her mid-forties, Critchfield for most of her life probably hadn’t given a thought to the place she now refers to as “Eye-rack,” or towns like Tikrit and Fallujah, where Shoemaker parents have died. Her comfort zone has essentially been limited to the place she was born and raised, the Fort Hood megalopolis, which takes in Killeen, Belton, Temple, and rural Bell and Coryell counties. For every job she’s ever had, her sturdy build, wide blue eyes, and authoritative way of gesturing with her stubby, insistent thumb have been enough to persuade people to do what they are supposed to. But the halcyon times at Shoemaker, where the biggest crisis before the insurgency in Iraq had been a student’s lack of credits for graduation, are gone now. “It never ends,” she says to herself and anyone else within earshot, “it” being a reference to the impact on her students of a war waged more than seven thousand miles away.
That threat explains why Critchfield, pulling cafeteria duty on this early December day, watches her students with the vigilance of a sentry guarding an entrance to the Green Zone. You can’t miss her: Stationed under a neon sign that reads “Grandma’s House,” she’s the white woman in the windbreaker and slacks, whose expression alternates between elation and exhaustion as she tries to keep no more than ten cornrowed, diamond-studded, Sean Johned, and Britneyed teenagers at a time from mobbing a cramped, tiled kitchen for their chicken wings and pizza. In a lot of ways, Shoemaker’s cafeteria looks like any other large high school’s lunchroom: Strong-jawed, supremely confident jocks hold court with their trophy girlfriends; the geeks play rousing games of Magic; the skaters and goths exile themselves to the patio outside.
But these are the children of the enlisted men and women of Fort Hood, the country’s largest military installation, which is just a mile from the Shoemaker campus. Reflecting the makeup of the Army’s lower ranks, many of them are African American, and most have seen and experienced the world in ways Critchfield can only dream of. They’ve tagged along, or been dragged along, on assignments from Germany to Japan, as well as posts from Fort Stewart, Georgia, to Fort Lewis, Washington. At Shoemaker, Critchfield says, around 80 percent of its 2,035 students have parents in the military. Most of them are either with the 4th Infantry or the 1st Cavalry in Iraq or on their way to or from Iraq, with a good chance of being deployed again after their year-long tours are up.
If the war is an unpleasant abstraction in most parts of Texas and the rest of the country, avoidable with just a flip of a newspaper page, here in Killeen it is omnipresent, with soldiers in fatigues talking about Iraq in all the restaurants that have sprung up along U.S. 190, the garish commercial strip that has become the main drag through town. During the first gulf war, families packed up and left the area when a spouse was sent overseas, heading home to other relatives. “Killeen was a ghost town,” Critchfield says. This time the community leaders, school administrators, and base commanders joined forces to keep the populace here, promising more consistency for the kids and more support for the adults—and, of course, more economic stability for Killeen, which is now bursting with chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain hotels. This is the home front, where the war never stops.
“Last year we had the year from hell,” Critchfield tells me while keeping her eyes on the lunchroom crowd. Along with the usual problems of teens (no girl- or boyfriend, no car, pimples), compounded by the usual problems of teens from military families (changing schools, making and losing new friends), the school population had to deal with the deaths of three parents in Iraq, one murder-suicide committed by a Shoemaker parent and war veteran, the death of a student in a traffic accident near the school, and—no doubt related—the abrupt departure, for another job, of a principal who cleaned out her office over spring break. Then there were the falling grades and behavioral problems of kids left with single parents or, worse, on their own. “When Dad leaves and tells the eldest son, ‘Take care of the family, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, find your sister who’s run away, be a man,’ and then Dad comes back—that kid’s supposed to be a boy again?” Critchfield asks rhetorically. “That doesn’t happen. It’s a loss of innocence overnight.” Shoemaker has had a reputation as a rough school, but Critchfield thinks its current critics among local parents and educators are clueless. “Our kids are the ones doing without parents. Our kids are the ones going home alone at night,” she says sharply. “This is the school where all the parents are in Iraq fighting for the rest of us.”
If every war is different from the ones before it, this one is notable for being, if not family friendly, then at least family aware. The soldiers in Iraq are on average older, and more of them are married than in the past; the old cliché “If I’d needed a wife, the Army would have issued me one” is now used only in counterpoint. With more soldiers having spouses and kids and more women in the service—and a desperate need on the part of the military to keep its ranks from returning to civilian life—a question has arisen that no one had much cared about before: What about the kids? In this theoretically kinder and gentler army, Fort Hood now features Family Readiness Groups, which are designed to help families of soldiers stay on base and in town, where the kids can have familiar surroundings and their families’ military benefits can remain in place. In sync with the technological revolution, the military now allows soldiers to keep in touch from thousands of miles away. Many parents call or e-mail daily.
The idea that military children should accept their parents’ choices without question or complaint—as in Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini—is receding into the past. There are now books for the children of deploying parents, including the heart-rending Night Catch, about a departing soldier who teaches his son to locate him by using the North Star. The Army produces a pamphlet titled “When a Parent Serves in the Military . . . The Children Also Serve.” Web sites provide well-meaning advice for every stage of deployment, such as, “Leaving children out of the [deployment] process . . . only serves to increase their apprehension and fears about the separation.”
But such changes, welcome though they may be, represent the proverbial Band-Aid on wounds that may never heal. All the pamphlets and programs in the world can do little to assuage the anxieties of kids who understand all too well the ramifications of a Department of Defense committed to doing more with less; they know the value of serving their country, but they also know about the shortage of body armor and the debatable novelty of multiple and extended tours, which increase separations and raise the risk of death. At Shoemaker, the responsibility for providing comfort and security in the face of such pressures falls on the counseling staff, which, in early December, consisted of five affectionate if very harried women, including Critchfield, now faced with finding their way through the fog of war.
In the cafeteria, Critchfield spots a pretty white girl with blond hair, wearing tight jeans and high-heeled boots and clutching a puffy white ski jacket. “Jessie!” she cries happily, as if she has spied her own daughter after a long separation. The girl smiles disconnectedly; her hair is a tangle of waves, her eyes are lined in black, and she wears a necklace with the words “Daddy’s Princess” spelled out in rhinestones. This is Jessica Blankenbecler, whose father was killed when his convoy, according to official reports, was hit by an “improvised explosive device and rocket-propelled grenades” in Samarra in October 2003—the first Shoemaker parent to be killed in Iraq.
A few minutes later Critchfield hugs a diminutive sophomore with a thatch of neatly coiled dreads: Rohan Osbourne Jr., whose mother, Pamela, a supply sergeant, was killed racing to get a weapon as rockets rained down on her camp in Baghdad. With both the 1st Cavalry and the 4th Infantry Division based in Fort Hood but rotating through Iraq, there are many walking wounded here: a student who stayed up at night because he was afraid his mother would try to kill herself while his father was gone; a school employee whose husband had a breakdown just before he was to leave for his second Iraq tour and threatened to throw her out of her own house. A new economics teacher just back from Iraq replaced the one just sent to Afghanistan, and an assistant librarian’s husband has just left. Many, many students are connected to a parent through laptops and cell phones, waiting every day for a call or an e-mail. Fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters: For all the ripple effects the war in Iraq has caused in this small community, the fighting could be as close as Waco.
In the beginning, just after the war started, Critchfield wanted to do something to honor all the Shoemaker parents serving in Iraq, something that would make their kids feel good too. She went to Hobby Lobby with the other counselors, and out of their own pockets, they bought a hundred or so silver and blue stars at 84 cents each. Their plan was to mark each one with the name of a deployed soldier and his or her Shoemaker student and then hang the stars in the hallways, near the ceiling, as a sort of celestial tribute. To get the names, the counselors sent questionnaires to English classes, because, as Critchfield notes, “everyone has to take English.” When the surveys were counted, they came to more than five hundred. As the months passed, the number of stars increased to one thousand, then, as students came and went, pushed past two thousand, until Critchfield started to lose count. “We couldn’t keep up with it,” she says.
Then Jessica’s father was killed, and Critchfield bought a gold star, hanging it just inside the main entrance. Since then, she’s had to buy six more. “I hate buying them,” she admits. Last time she bought five extras, hoping she wouldn’t ever have to go back to the store for more. “I have to make myself do it.” Like the kids at Shoemaker, she’s been pressed into service, with no say in the matter.
“How many of these kids do you worry about?” I ask her, watching the lunch crowd thin out as the kids return to class.
“I worry about all of them,” she answers.
“You’ll love Michek,” Critchfield tells me, referring to one of her favorite recent graduates, a twenty-year-old who is packing off to Iraq in a week with the 1st Cavalry. “He will be the one to find bin Laden,” she adds definitively.
Though married with two teenagers of her own, Critchfield has been unable to establish much self-protective professional detachment. She has utterly failed at sticking to the traditional requirements of her job; she’s a far cry from the typical high school guidance counselor, whom students learn to avoid at all costs, the one who always says you won’t be able to get into the college of your choice. Many of the kids at Shoemaker have her cell phone number, and their frequent calls are a perpetual cause of friction in her otherwise happy marriage. “Military kids are different,” she insists to me: Worldly but childlike, tough but needy, bounced all over the world as hostages to their parents’ fortunes, they form quick but deep bonds with those who help them, their loyalty and love qualities Critchfield treasures.
For the past few weeks, in fact, she has been worrying about Michek, a former student whom no one, it seems, ever addresses by his given name of Christopher. Today, we are speeding toward an Applebee’s in her shiny black pickup to say good-bye, past “We Support Our Troops” signs and “Half My Heart Is in Iraq” bumper stickers, which in Killeen are as ubiquitous as teeth-whitening billboards in Houston. For Critchfield, the war has suddenly become intensely personal.
We arrive at the restaurant and meet a pale, shorn, muscular young man in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, and heavy boots. Michek slides into our booth, and Critchfield beams at the sight of him. He looks and sounds like central casting’s idea of a gung-ho fighting man, excited about going to “the sandbox,” where, he’s heard, they have a bowling alley and a swimming pool on base—“everything a soldier could need.”
“You can go bowling here,” Critchfield quips.
“Yeah, but how many people can say they ever bowled in Iraq?” Michek counters, smiling at her the way a boy smiles at a mom he loves very much.
Critchfield asks him what he’s going to do the last few days he’s here. He looks at her for just a beat before answering. “Pray,” he says, and then grins. The grin she returns is weaker than previous efforts.
“My number one goal is to bring back my crew,” he says, suddenly thoughtful. “I want to come home too, but that’s my job. I’m coming home walking or on wheels or in a bag.” He stumbles over the next few words, trying to keep up with his own bluster. “I wouldn’t want to be in a bag … I don’t know … I’m gonna go over there, do my job, come back home.”
Michek is a classic example of the military kid: open, hardy, and independent, with just the slightest chip on his shoulder. He joined the military to follow in the footsteps of his father, who served in Vietnam and Desert Storm and now manages a vehicle repair facility for the 1st Cavalry, where Michek has been stopping in for talks every day since he got his orders to leave. As a kid, Michek was bounced around several cities and countries until he landed at Shoemaker, where he couldn’t be bothered to go to class. “Except for ROTC,” he points out. “My goal was to skip by and get in the Army.” He found a refuge in the counselors’ office, where Critchfield listened without judgment and didn’t ride him too much about his low grades. She knew what was good about him and left it at that. Maybe he reminded her of her own son, who never much liked school either.
As the moments tick away, her usually sunny face begins to show some cloud cover. “Why couldn’t you have worked construction or been a doctor?” she asks, trying to razz Michek, but a hint of a whine comes through.
“I couldn’t have been a doctor,” he says, without regret. He likes being a tank driver, like his dad. “It’s a blast to feel that tank rock,” he insists, cheered by the memory of his training in Korea, where he used to check satellite photos to see whether his father’s car was in the driveway in time for dinner back in Killeen. Michek isn’t one of those people who joined up to get the tax-free combat pay or the $20,000 for enlisting for three years with certain deployment to Iraq. “Soldiers soldier,” he says. “We sign a contract that we will support the president of the United States. Don’t we care that the Iraqis are free and democratic?”
Critchfield says nothing. Michek’s is only one of many opinions she hears daily about the war. There’s a surprising lack of consensus at the school, except for the notion that the biased American media report only the bad news about our soldiers. Generally, the kids whose mothers and fathers believe it’s their job to serve try to bear their absence with good grace—“As long as my mom gets back, I’m straight,” one tells me—while the children of parents angry about the war are angry themselves. “I think they should put a stick of dynamite up Bush’s ass and light the fuse” is the way another student put it. Mostly, the kids don’t like to talk about the war, because talking about it raises the specter of injury and death. Lots of students don’t even alert the school when a family member has been deployed; most of them have been raised, like Michek, to fend for themselves.
“I want my combat patch,” continues Michek, speaking of his goals. Critchfield is now avoiding his eyes and massaging one cheek, as if it hurts.
“Why don’t you just draw one on your arm?” she suggests, pointing to his tattoos and smiling.
When the time comes to say good-bye, the two of them linger between their pickups. “Just don’t get yourself shot,” she says, before pulling away.
Heading back toward Shoemaker, she is already worrying about how she’ll feel when she sends Michek e-mails and doesn’t get the quick answers she got when he was stationed in Korea. In past wars, like Vietnam, no news was usually good news; now, in a time of easy communication, it’s the reverse. No calls or e-mails often means the worst. The counselors at Shoemaker have learned how to brace themselves: They watch the news, and when the death of a Fort Hood soldier is reported from Iraq, they listen for the age. “If they were in their twenties, it was like, okay. If they were in their thirties and forties … ,” Critchfield trails off, preferring not to finish her sentence. But now it’s her own students, not just their parents, heading to war. “For the first time it’s like, whoa,” she says. “Now I know what these kids are going through.” She races back to school, seeking the solace of Shoemaker’s needs.
A WEEK OR SO LATER, I try to interview Jessica Blankenbecler and her mother, Linnie, but they cancel. Jessica was supposed to have been home at five, but she wasn’t, and now, as darkness falls and the weather turns unseasonably cold—the highway is icy, the sky black—Linnie won’t leave home without her. There is something taut in Linnie’s voice, something familiar to all parents; it is the anxiety of a mother trying to reel a child back from the edge. Barbara Critchfield has also spent much of the past few years trying to get Jessica to a safe place emotionally, often refereeing between mother and daughter. Despite her inherent sweetness, her smarts, and her good military manners, Jessica displays a dazed sort of detachment, as if all the connections and conventions of her life have irreparably frayed. “She does not want to love because she does not want to hurt” is how Linnie, a warm, pixieish woman in her late forties, describes her.
Jessica wasn’t that way when she arrived at Shoemaker, in August 2003. She was, then, a happy fourteen-year-old, the quintessential daddy’s girl. Linnie’s older children, Amanda and Joseph, were on their own, so Jessica had her father to herself. “They bonded from the beginning,” Linnie recalls. Strappingly tall and handsome, with dancing blue eyes, James Blankenbecler could do no wrong in Jessica’s eyes, so following him around the country—to Hawaii, to El Paso—as he advanced his military career was, for her, a great adventure. Things would be good in Killeen, he’d promised. At registration, he’d told Jessica that he knew Shoemaker would be a great school because so many of the boys wore Chuck Taylors, Jessica tells me, snuggling into the memory. He was forty then, a command sergeant major, the highest rank possible for a noncommissioned officer.
We meet up a day later, in the small tract home near Shoemaker that Linnie has transformed into a cheery refuge of brightly colored walls and fabrics, straw rugs and warm woods, and, of course, pictures of her husband. Even so, neither she nor Jessica has found the energy to put up a Christmas tree as the holiday looms, nor has anyone taken James’s voice off the answering machine.
He had never expected to go to war, but the transfer to Fort Hood for training meant otherwise. He would go without complaint: He was loyal to the military and President Bush. “Don’t be scared. Be proud,” James told Linnie. So it happened that a month after school began, not so long after Critchfield had started buying silver and blue stars, Jessica was called out of her seventh-period class. Descending a flight of stairs, she spied her father at the bottom, watching her, his arms folded. He reached for her hand and led her to their car for a drive to the airport. “He was so different that day,” Jessica remembers.
His own childhood had been rough, and so he cherished his small family with a passion that was sometimes haunting; in El Paso he’d once awakened, frightened, from a dream in which he’d begged God not to take him away from them. Now, somber at the airport, James paced the perimeter of the terminal to find the best spot for Jessica and Linnie to stand to watch his plane take off. In the departure lounge, he was silent, staring into space. When mother and daughter returned to the quiet house, they found messages he had written: in lipstick on the dresser mirror for Linnie—“I love you baby, and I miss you already”—and for Jessica, a note on her pillow.
He called from Kuwait, and then, settled in Tikrit, began to write regularly. He was circumspect in his letters to Jessica, but he wrote Linnie that he could not believe how many ways the insurgents had invented to try to kill him. His truck was riddled with bullet holes. “Everything is okay,” Linnie told Jessica, “as long as we don’t see any men in green suits in the front yard.”
But they appeared just eighteen days after James had landed in Iraq. Linnie and Jessica were coming back from the store, where they had gone to buy what Linnie calls a “love package” for James—items like Kool-Aid and Gatorade. Linnie turned onto their street on the base and saw the house they loved, with the little balcony Jessica had all to herself, and then slammed on the brakes, her knuckles white on the wheel. Jessica pitched forward in her seat and then saw them. “Please don’t let that be for us,” Linnie said, indicating three men in uniform on their street, but they already knew. Jessica started wailing.
Linnie inched the car forward, stopping every few feet or so—maybe by avoiding the visitors she could avoid their news. “Keep going!” Jessica screamed.
When they finally reached the house, one of the uniformed men asked Linnie to step out of the car. Jessica opened her door and collapsed to the ground. “They said his convoy was hit by weird things,” Linnie tells me. “I was listening, but at the same time, all these things were going through my head. I just couldn’t concentrate.” Jessica, sobbing, had to be dragged from the yard into the house.
The memorial service for James Blankenbecler was held on October 16, at the Killeen civic center. Linnie worried about who would come, because they had been in town for only a little more than six weeks and had no friends or family nearby. She was confused that day when the funeral procession took a detour by Shoemaker on the way to the service. But then she saw them: hundreds of students lining the road in a silent vigil, holding tiny American flags for the father of a girl they hardly knew.
The counselors’ office, denoted by a cheerfully lettered sign and a “We Support Our Troops” sticker on the door, is ground zero in the fight for student stability at Shoemaker. Sit long enough in this cramped, cluttered, and often crowded warren of offices and you can watch the entire panoply of high school anxieties and ambitions parade by, tinted by the shadow of the war. Kids weep over breakups, court dates, parental abuse, and disappointing grades; they celebrate a return visit by 2005 graduate Roy Miller, who would play for the Texas Longhorns in the Rose Bowl. (His father too served in Iraq.) The counselors—along with the coaches, teachers, ROTC commanders, and Communities in Schools supervisors—have turned their offices into temporary day care centers, helped families evicted from their homes, taken students grocery shopping, taught giggling girls how to tune up their cars and change the oil, taught earnest boys to pay bills, and made sure everyone made it to the prom and homecoming. “There’s nothing we wouldn’t do for these kids, as long as it’s legal,” Critchfield says. “When their grades fall, we stay on ’em.” The most successful threat to a Shoemaker kid with falling grades is “Don’t make me call your daddy in Iraq.”
On this December day, Critchfield wears a snowman sweatshirt in honor of the Christmas season, and also as a reminder to touch base with the kids whose loneliness increases because their parents are gone. The holidays, she knows, are toughest on students who are alone.
She wants me to meet Rohan Osbourne Jr., who strides into her office while she is simultaneously talking on the phone and checking her e-mail. “Hey!” she says exuberantly when he arrives, as if it has been months instead of hours since she has seen him.
Rohan, now a sophomore, is a strikingly beautiful, strikingly self-possessed boy. He has skin the color of burnished mahogany, with eyes that sparkle even when he is talking about the saddest things. Today he wears an immaculate oversized white hoodie and an enormous watch. After Rohan’s mother was killed, an aunt moved with her children from Florida to Killeen, buoying Rohan with food, family, and a feminine presence. His father, Rohan Senior, does not speak to the media about Sergeant Pamela Osbourne’s death at 38, but he allows his son to make his own decisions on the subject. You can feel her presence when Rohan talks about her, her love for him and his for her.
Pamela and Rohan Senior emigrated separately from Jamaica to Florida, meeting in high school in the Miami area. They married and had three children, and Rohan Junior grew up in some fairly rough neighborhoods, one reason he is grateful for the peace he finds in Killeen. His mother joined the military out of gratitude for her U.S. citizenship. “She wanted to do something for her country,” Rohan tells me. She was like her son, small and radiant. Rohan remembers how beautiful she was in her fatigues. “She looked sooo good,” he says, warmed by the memory. “She had a big smile no matter what, through good and bad.”
The two were close. Rohan’s favorite times with his mother were those when they did almost nothing, like lying on their backs in the grass looking for shapes in the clouds drifting high over town. When Pamela was sent to Iraq in the spring of 2004, Rohan tried to avoid all the talk in the school hallways about other parents who were there, because it made him worry. In late October, another student, a junior named Leeza Weibley, lost her stepfather, Army Sergeant First Class Michael Battles Sr., in Iraq. It was some comfort to Rohan that his mother called every morning at around six o’clock—nighttime in Iraq—and that she made it home for two weeks of R & R, stressed but happy to see her kids. “Stay strong,” Rohan’s father told him. A car salesman, he bought a white BMW for Pamela upon her return.
But early one morning, Rohan’s father awoke from a dream, shouting his wife’s name. Rohan and his younger sister, LaToya, rushed in, and all three realized that Pamela hadn’t called. The men in uniform showed up the next morning. Seeing them, Rohan fled into the bathroom, closed the door, and wept. Then he got dressed and went to Shoemaker. “I didn’t want to stay home,” he tells me.
When Rohan mentions that his mother loved a particular reggae singer, Beres Hammond, Critchfield swivels around in her chair to find him on Google. Rohan stands behind her, leaning happily on the chair. She clicks the keyboard again, and one of Pamela’s favorite songs—“What Can You Do to Stop a Man From Trying?”—plays softly. Rohan falls into a reverie, closing his eyes and lifting his chin. “Can you play some more?” he asks Critchfield. She clicks on another song, and then another, as if she has all the time in the world.
Of course she doesn’t. It isn’t long before a weary, middle-aged woman with a sixties-era bouffant joins us to talk about her son’s declining grades in one particular class, her glowing daughter in tow. The youth of the girl accentuates her mother’s age; the daughter is slim, with long sable-colored hair, stylish hoop earrings, and the classic teenage expression of exasperation, while her mother is tense and pale. Unaware of what has gone before, they join the conversation about military life. Her husband, an officer, left for Iraq right after Thanksgiving, and as an officer’s wife, she is spending all her time helping Family Readiness Groups, going to holiday teas, and soothing young wives whose husbands will be overseas for Christmas. The daughter sighs heavily, and the mother tries to explain why she has neglected to get her own family’s Christmas decorations up yet. “If you were seventeen and alone, I would want someone to help you,” she says. Such stress is common at Fort Hood: Even military parents who aren’t deployed are working harder and seeing their families less than before. The downsized volunteer army now resembles the corporate world, with one person often doing a job previously performed by two.
As for her daughter, the multiple moves—three in three years—have caused the usual teenage stresses. “I have to try out for cheerleader every year again,” she says.
“Where’s your mother now?” the woman asks Rohan.
“She died,” he says evenly. Both mother and daughter look as though they’ve been kicked. “I’m sorry,” they say softly, in unison.
The woman’s own son, it seems, has not told his teachers about his father’s deployment or his mother about his slipping grades; she’d had to find out from a teacher. Soon the teacher appears in the office to recite a litany of complaints: rudeness, inattentiveness, failure to do homework or attend tutoring sessions that might bring up his grades. Told of the deployment, the teacher promises to be more understanding of his situation; the mother bursts into tears. “I can’t even call my husband for advice,” she says.
AT THE END OF ANOTHER DECEMBER DAY, Jessica appears in Critchfield’s office. She has decided to quit the drill team, which in almost any other child would trigger a minor adolescent crisis. She had joined at the suggestion of her friend Leeza Weibley, the girl whose stepfather had been killed in Iraq. But Leeza’s mother moved her family back to South Carolina at the end of school last spring, and Jessica has lost interest. “We’ve got to find something for Jessica to hold on to,” Critchfield says, to no one in particular. Teary, Jessica wafts out of the office like a trail of smoke.
“Before my father was killed, I thought we had a perfect life,” Jessica tells me later. “So much changed so fast. I just didn’t see how I was going to survive.”
Jessica did not return to school for at least a month after her father died. She was then sleeping on the floor of his office with just a pillow and a blanket; she woke up every morning, showered, ate breakfast, and then went back to sleep. Students and teachers made cards and brought food to the house, but she still would not return to Shoemaker. Finally, Linnie made her go back. The night before her return, Jessica could barely sleep, worrying what the next day would bring. “How will people react? Will they stare at me?” Initially, the students were afraid to talk to her, not knowing what to say. “I couldn’t stop crying,” Jessica says. “Just for no reason I’d start.” When Linnie would try to hug her, Jessica would pull away.
As the 2003 school year ended and 2004 began, Jessica became a perpetual source of worry to Critchfield, who was at a loss to help her. Jessica’s grades were low, and she was skipping school and hanging out with kids who were more likely to get her into trouble than help her recover. She refused to cooperate with a therapist. “You can take me,” Jessica had told Linnie, “but I won’t talk.” She didn’t see the point. What seemed to make her angriest were the people who told her that her father was in a better place. Explains Linnie: “I hated to hear those things, and Jessie especially hated to hear them, because her father’s best place was with us.”
Critchfield could see that Linnie was in too much pain to help her daughter. “Jessica was just angry,” she says. “These kids don’t know who to be angry at. At Bush? The military? Their friends, because their dads come home? They really don’t know.”
And then, in October, a year after James Blankenbecler was killed, Rohan lost his mother, and just two weeks later, Leeza lost her stepfather. The whole school was reeling, and Critchfield and the other counselors, themselves grieving, were unsure what to do. Then Critchfield thought of Jessica. “I was so lost myself, and I couldn’t begin to understand what those kids were going through,” she tells me. “And I knew she could.” She called Jessica into her office and asked her if she would be willing to talk with Rohan and Leeza. Right away, Jessica agreed: “When this happened to Leeza and Rohan, it reminded me of all the feelings I went through.” She had been thinking of reaching out but didn’t know how.
The Communities in Schools counselors helped the students set up a grief group that met every day in second period and later met for lunch in the CIS room. At first the kids were quiet; no one wanted to talk, especially about how their parents had died. But with a little prodding, the questions tumbled out over the next few weeks: Why had this happened? Why are we at war? What about the weapons of mass destruction? Were they real or not? Sometimes they talked about the good times they had shared with their parents—Jessica remembered checking her e-mail for her father’s daily messages—and sometimes they talked about how hard life was now. After her stepfather was killed, Leeza had taken over many domestic duties, including cooking dinner, cleaning the house, and putting her little brother to bed. Afterward, she’d do her homework. “Then she’d come to school the next day and start over again,” Critchfield says. One day, Rohan went to the meeting feeling particularly stressed, only to meet two new members, brothers whose father, a war veteran, had killed his wife and then himself. “I just forgot about my problems,” Rohan tells me. Even so, life was one step forward and two steps back for the kids. It was especially hard on them when Fort Hood staged a hero’s welcome for the returning 1st Cavalry, complete with parades and brass bands. Half the kids at Shoemaker were ecstatic that their parents were back home. Happy as she was for her classmates, Jessica sequestered herself in the CIS office.
In April 2005 President Bush came to Killeen, and Rohan, Leeza, and Jessica were invited to meet him. Linnie made the arrangements to get them to the event; Rohan’s father and Leeza’s mother declined the invitation. Each child sat in a cubicle in a room on the base until the president arrived and then had a picture taken with him. They all wept—“I didn’t think I was going to cry so much,” Leeza tells me—but each student took away a small measure of solace. “He was really nice,” Jessica says. “I wasn’t expecting him to be so down-to-earth. He gave me a kiss and said he was really sorry.” For just a moment, she sounds like a normal teenager, her voice high and soft.
But disappointment would soon return, brought on by Leeza’s mother’s decision to return to South Carolina. As a widow, she had lost her military housing after her husband’s death and so was headed home, where she had family and more financial support. Critchfield begged her to let Leeza finish her senior year at Shoemaker, and Linnie even offered to let Leeza live with them. Jessica and Leeza had become fast friends by the end of the year, talking to each other constantly on the phone, sharing lunch, gossip, and drill team. That both girls had been close to their fathers made their bond even stronger. But her mother refused to let Leeza stay, and Jessica was alone again. “Now I have no one to talk to,” she told Linnie.
THE DAYS AFTER THE CHRISTMAS holidays are as hard as the days before for Shoemaker’s counselors, but for different reasons. January is when the transfers arrive. On this first day back, there are 25 or so new and returning students crammed into the counselors’ office, making the air thick and humid, and at least 10 more kids sitting glumly on desks in the hall, many with parents in uniform at their sides. The crowd swells and ebbs and swells again throughout the day.
Kids change schools when their parents move to Fort Hood, and it’s up to the Shoemaker counselors to make sure they fulfill the State of Texas requirements for graduation and qualify for extracurricular activities, regardless of where they have come from. Hence, a student fluent in German still has to enroll in German 1 and 2; a football player has to prove himself all over again. “I’ll put you in P.E., and we’ll see what the coaches have to say,” Critchfield tells a huge new sophomore. Sometimes transcripts are incomplete or late arriving, and the counselors have to help students reconstruct old schedules from memory. “It’s like, ‘Okay, did you study about Texas or the Roman Empire?’” Later she tells me, “Sometimes I think, ‘I’m out of here. I can’t deal with it anymore.’ And then I can’t imagine not dealing with it all the time.”
A student waiting patiently for a schedule change tells me that his father was recently deployed. In his late forties, he had been serving in the National Guard and never dreamed he’d be called up. The family has bought a larger house because, the student explains, if his father dies in the war, his mother wants something to fall back on. On the other hand, his father believes the money he’ll earn in Iraq will come in handy, with two kids in college next year. The student tells me he’s changed his college choice to stay closer to Killeen and his mom while his father is away.
A Navy recruiter has chosen this day to drop in. Dressed in black, medals on his chest, he’s nervous and deferential to the counselors, trying to establish a workable timetable for subsequent visits. Critchfield apologizes for being swamped, explaining that a counselor had quit during Christmas break and now they were down to four.
“Do more with less,” the recruiter says. “That’s the military attitude.” Critchfield sighs in agreement.
Soon after, Jessica saunters in. “Did my mom call you?” she asks Critchfield.
Critchfield turns from her computer to study Jessica’s face. “No, why?” she asks.
Jessica shrugs. “I’m grounded,” she says, almost giddy. She hadn’t come in until eight in the morning, after being out all night without informing her mother of her plans. Still, there’s good news. “I got a tattoo,” Jessica says, beaming happily and rolling up her left sleeve to show Critchfield the deep-blue curlicues on her upper arm.
Critchfield reads the words, once to herself and then out loud, striving for just the right balance of enthusiasm and dismay. “Daddy’s princess,” she says.