ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today, the second of two stories to mark an upcoming milestone. Next month, the United States will enter its fifth year of war in Iraq. Yesterday on the program, to find out how the war is being experienced in a military community, we went to Killeen, Texas, and to Fort Hood. It's home to the Army's 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions. They have alternated deployments to the last four years of war.
Well today we'll visit a high school in Killeen where the imprint of the war is felt everyday on virtually every student. About 90 percent of the 2,000 at Shoemaker High School have at least one parent in the military.
Walk into Shoemaker and you can't miss the stars - big cardboard stars, Royal blue and silver, the school colors - stretching all along the hallways at the top of the walls; a star with a name of each parent who's been deployed since the war began.
Ms. BARBARA CRITCHFIELD (School Counselor, Shoemaker High School): I think it was 80 out of our pocket that we bought. They were 84 cents apiece. I remember that.
BLOCK: School counselor Barbara Critchfield and some colleagues had the idea for the stars soon after the war began. Then they surveyed the students, asking who has a deployed parent.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: It was almost like, uh-oh, you know, what have we started.
BLOCK: So they bought a thousand more stars, and then a thousand more. There are a thousand or so stars still waiting to be put up.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: I don't think I ever walked through them and I'm not looking up. And a name will pop out and I'm like, oh, I need to check on him. Or I need to check on her, you know.
BLOCK: The absence of parents is inescapable.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: We have a football game a couple of years ago, right after another huge group had gone. And that school, that next week, sent a plant to us, telling us that they were thinking about us - that they had noticed the absence of parents on our side of the stadium during the football game. And it struck them so hard then and they realized, you know, that our kids were doing all these without parents.
BLOCK: Hanging above the front door at Shoemaker High School, there are also seven gold stars now, one for each parent who has died in Iraq. Shoemaker High School has gone through four principals in three years. All the counselors are new this year, except for Barbara Critchfield. She's been at Shoemaker for six years.
The pressures on students and staff are constant.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: Is she in the ambulance with her, or did she go…? It just said that she's on her way to the hospital.
BLOCK: There's a crisis on the day we visit. A tenth-grade girl is found passed out in the bathroom.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: It never stops, you know. It could just be she's just depressed over one thing. It could be a lot of things.
BLOCK: The girl spends the night in intensive care. It turns out she'd been drinking since the early morning, her depression not connected to the war. They expect she will be back at school in the next week or so. Now to be clear, moments like this are the exceptions. For most students at Shoemaker, high school life is filled with the usual teenage concerns like exams, football practice, young love. Still, the war does overshadow everything.
Counselor Barbara Critchfield had learned to ride the dramatic ups and downs here. She's solid with brown-feathered hair, bright blue eyes, and an easy laugh with the students.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: You goofball.
BLOCK: She wears a Shoemaker windbreaker and sneakers, and the students have given her a nickname.
Mr. EUGENE DANIELS (Senior, Shoemaker High School): Critch. The Critch. This is the Critch.
BLOCK: The Critch.
Mr. DANIELS: The Critch. That's the miracle worker around here.
BLOCK: Meet Eugene Daniels, a senior. He'll play football at Colorado State next year. He's carrying a memory book filled with family photos, but hardly any pictures of his father, who's an Army lieutenant colonel in military intelligence.
Mr. DANIELS: Maybe three or four pictures, and they're probably when my sister and me were born. So he's been gone quite a lot. He gets - every time they go somewhere he's deployed.
BLOCK: Eugene's father has been home for one year straight, just once since 2001.
Mr. DANIELS: They tell you they're going to be gone for a year, my dad was gone for 18 months - a year and six months. So he was gone a lot more than they say. And so there's never - you never know the truth of it. So when they say he'll be back in May for graduation, I'm like, okay, we'll see. And so, you know, you have to make those sacrifices and it's hard. It really is. Because my sister - I mean, she's seven years old - the other day she just started crying and bawling. We asked, what is wrong? And she said, I missed daddy. And it's hard and there's nothing I could do about it. And I was driving so I have to keep my eyes on the road. And I'm like… So it is a lot on the students because we're just teenagers. And I think a lot of time we forget that because you have to grow up so fast.
BLOCK: Eugene Daniels worries about next year when he's away at college. And his mother and younger sisters are on their own. Like many Shoemaker students, he's been helping take care of things. He drives, picks up the girls at school, makes dinner.
Counselor Barbara Critchfield says with so many parents away, school attendance has fallen, Students' grades start to slip, so fewer are graduating. They have more discipline problems now. She also mentions students who worry their mothers might commit suicide while the dads are deployed. The kids will stay up all night watching mom to make sure she's okay.
Ms. CRITCHFIELD: It's getting old. They need this to stop. You know, it would be so nice if it will stop and everybody would come home. But we just have to hang on, you know, I mean the kids just have to hang on. You know, sometimes they just need a little booster shot from now on, you know, every now and then. And they just need to come in, and be able to break down and cry. Or scream. Sometimes, they just really come sit. Sometimes, they need to sit in silence. Sometimes, they just want you to listen to them. And there's not a lot we can say, I mean, because what do you say? You know, I mean how do you make them feel better about it? I mean like one phone call, you know their whole world could come crashing down on them.
BLOCK: And it's not just the students who are on edge. Many teachers at Shoemaker have a spouse who's been deployed in Iraq.
Ms. CYNTHIA KOVACH (Art teacher, Shoemaker High School): I'm exhausted. And I stay tired.
BLOCK: Cynthia Kovach teaches art. You can find her busy, messy classroom at the end of the hall, just look for the sign she's hung outside. It says: wit's end.
Ms. KOVACH: I want you to do one of these. Go, get a sheet of paper and start doing this because it will be good for your portfolio. You, Walter(ph), would do that one.
BLOCK: Cynthia Kovach tries to wrangle a dozen or so students in her class. She's got five kids at home. Her husband's in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry. He came home from his deployment with what she calls really bad post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ms. KOVACH: He came back having nightmares. He would yell out in the middle of the night, strike out - if he were coming around the corner and I knew he was, I would let him know I was there first, before he walked around the corner, because he would lash out. He withdrew from the family. But he agreed to go into counseling and he got this really awesome counselor. And things have gotten a lot better and then found out he was being deployed again. So we'll see how this next go round - you know, how it goes this next time.
BLOCK: Rick Kovach should be back home in November. His wife, Cynthia, says the longer the war goes on, the more she sees the effect on her students.
Ms. KOVACH: I've seen more depression. Two years ago, I had a student that -his dad came back from Iraq - shot his wife, shot himself - both boys were there. I've had students start cutting themselves.
BLOCK: Do you think it's related? I mean
Ms. KOVACH: I think, yes, I do.
(Soundbite of timer counting off)
Unidentified Woman: Recite the "Cadet Creed."
Unidentified Group: I am an Army Junior ROTC Cadet.
BLOCK: The Junior ROTC classes at Shoemaker High are booming, about 300 students in all.
Unidentified Group: I am loyal and patriotic. I am the future of the United States of America.
BLOCK: The classes teach discipline, leadership, maybe, inspire a career in the military.
Unidentified Woman: In house, dismissed.
Unidentified Group: (Chanting) (Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).
BLOCK: Outside the class, the instructor, Sergeant Terrell Travis(ph), runs into a former junior ROTC cadet, senior Amanda Gillinger(ph).
Sergeant TERRELL TRAVIS (Instructor, Junior ROTC, Shoemaker High School): Hey stranger.
Ms. AMANDA GILLINGER (Senior, Shoemaker High School): I'm good. Do you want to see my wedding dress?
BLOCK: Amanda shows him a magazine photo of a satin wedding dress with an impressive cathedral train.
Sgt. TRAVIS: Who's getting married?
Ms. GILLINGER: Me. I've been telling you this.
Sgt. TRAVIS: You're not - who authorized you to get married.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sgt. TRAVIS: Why are you getting married? You're only 12.
Ms. GILLINGER: I'm not 12.
Unidentified Man #2: How old are you?
Sgt. TRAVIS: Thirteen?
Ms. GILLINGER: Seventeen.
BLOCK: Seventeen, and Amanda hopes to be married by June.
Ms. GILLINGER: You know, people say you shouldn't get married young, but I see absolutely no point to say okay, let's not get married because I'm young, when he might not be there tomorrow or I might not be there tomorrow. Because he's joining the military. So, you know, he could go to Iraq and not come back, and then I'm going to be SOL. So I figure take advantage of the chance while I've got it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Amanda's mother is a fueler with the 4th Infantry. She fills airplanes, helicopters, trucks.
Ms. GILLINGER: She drives this big tanker around that's full of gas. So she's like a massive target, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GILLINGER: So it's really scary, but she enjoys her job.
BLOCK: We sit down to talk with Amanda and her best friend, Allissa Richards. Allissa's stepfather is a driver with the 1st Calvary. He's in Iraq now.
Ms. ALLISSA RICHARDS (Student, Shoemaker High School): You know, what's even really sad is that last goodbye could be your last goodbye, that last time you're there with that person.
Ms. GILLINGER: Watching their back as they march away is the hardest thing you will ever have to do.
Ms. RICHARD: You don't even get to hug them goodbye and let them get on the train…
Ms. GILLINGER: You don't. You don't. Because when my mom left, I hugged her. She got in formation. She stood there for 10, 15 minutes in front of me, and I couldn't go and hug her. Those last words are so full of regret. I yelled at her the day before she left. We fought. I was hateful. You know, you can't go back and change it. You can't say - mom, I'm sorry - because she's not there. And that is, it's devastating. It changes you. You're not the same after something like that. You can't be because it takes you, and it twists you and turns you, and you come out with something totally new.
BLOCK: That's Amanda Gillinger and her friend, Allissa Richards, at Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas. They both say they don't watch the news, and they don't want to know where in Iraq their parents are deployed. They don't want to be even more frightened than they already are. For now, the seniors at Shoemaker High, like Amanda and Allissa and Eugene Daniels are looking ahead to graduation in May. They are hoping their parents will be there, but as they've learned over the last four years, they can't count on anything, and in the fall, counselor Barbara Critchfield will be new class, more deployments and even more blue and silver stars to hang on the wall.
(Soundbite of crowd of people)
BLOCK: You can see photos from Shoemaker High, including those stars in the hallway, and hear our earlier story from Killeen, Texas at our Web site, npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.