Heartbreak High

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,

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