High School Honors Graduates Who Fell in Iraq

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Bishop Hendrickson High School in Warwick, R.I., has lost two students in combat in Iraq, and seen others severely wounded. Nancy Cook reports on how the school is coping with the losses.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At a high school in Rhode Island, students are learning first-hand about the human cost of the war in Iraq. Bishop Hendricken is an all-boys Catholic high school in Warwick, Rhode Island. A recent graduate, Marine Lance Corporal Eric Valdepenas, died in early September while fighting in Fallujah. Another graduate died in January of 2004, and at least three other alumni have been seriously injured. Nancy Cook from member station WRNI reports on how teenagers at the school are trying to make sense of the news.

NANCY COOK: Ten boys are sitting around the campus ministry office during their free period, teasing one another and talking about soccer. They're lounging on couches in a small room across from the cafeteria, wearing the required button-down shirts and ties. One kid asks another if he's planning to go bowling with the pro-life club. This is a nice change from the beginning of the year, when Valdepenas was killed by a roadside bomb.

Seventeen-year-old Joe Dipetro(ph) was one of the first students to hear about Valdepenas' death. His older sister and Valdepenas had been friends.

Mr. JOE DIPETRO (Student, Bishop Hendricken High School): It was hard. I mean, I've had people die who I've known, like grandparents. But that was the first kid around my age who I knew close who had passed away.

COOK: The next day at school, Dipetro says he didn't really talk to anyone.

Mr. DIPETRO: It was just hard, realizing that, like, at any time, any of us can go. I mean, Eric, too. He's in his 20s.

COOK: Few of Bishop Hendricken's other students knew Valdepenas, because he graduated three years ago. But since his death, they've learned he played lacrosse and attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as an engineering student. Members of the lacrosse came the closest to his death. They served as the honor guard at his funeral and lined the cathedral steps as his coffin passed. Senior Greg Mercurio(ph), who wears wire-rimmed glasses, says Valdepenas's death got him thinking.

Mr. GREG MERCURIO (Student, Bishop Hendricken High School): The war is everywhere, like, you can look, there's something about it. You don't have to, like, personally know someone on a personal level for it to affect you.

COOK: He says the students aren't sure what to think about the war. Last year during religion class, they were taught that war should only happen when there's no other way to solve a problem. TV news gave them different information, depending on which channel they watch, although most get their news from John Stewart's The Daily Show. The closest any of them have come to war is attending funerals. Mercurio says all these messages are confusing.

Mr. MERCURIO: Should we be there, should we not be there? I don't know if I have any particular stance. Like, there are reasons why people say we shouldn't be there - you know, people dying - and there are reasons people say we should be there - fighting the war on terror. You know, like, I don't even know where I stand, because it's just - you feel like you're being torn in a lot of different directions.

COOK: None of these boys want to join the military. The National Guard, Army and Marines visit Bishop Hendricken High School every year to recruit, but it's a suburban, middle-class school, where 98 percent of the kids go to college.

As seniors walk in and out of the campus ministry room, Tim Place(ph) says the military only appeals to a small portion of students.

Mr. TIM PLACE: It's definitely a last resort for them, like, for some of the kids that can't really get into a good college.

(Soundbite of bell)

COOK: It's time for another class. The boys forget the war. They sling their backpacks over their shoulders and walk out into the hallway. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cook in Providence, Rhode Island.

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