All my life my dad felt this need to protect his kids from a war he fought, a war I believed could never reach out and touch us, could never hurt us—and yet he fed us lies with his answers, shielding us from the truth about what he did there, about what he saw, about who he was before the war, and about what he became because of it. He lied to protect us from his memories, from his nightmares. Standing with my dad at The Wall, I knew the truth—no one could know so many names engraved in granite if he 'never was in danger.
I have this thought, it’s horrible, and it makes me sick, but it’s true: one day these students will grow up and have their own kids, and they’re going to name them for men and women who will die in this war.
This is my worst fear. It’s not keeping my students safe from terrorists, it’s knowing what to do when the Chaplain comes to take Johnny out of class because not letting the terrorists win means sometimes the good guys are going to die. And those good guys have kids, and they’re sitting in my classroom.
Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s about being engaged, listening, paying attention. Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t need to talk a lot to teach well. You do need to care, though. Not so much about what people think of you or whether or not they like you, but about the kids and doing what’s best for them.
The men and women who made up DoDDS Korea during the time I was there were an eclectic group to say the least, but as a group we were among the most talented, diverse, intelligent, fun, crazy, thoughtful, caring, and dedicated people in the world. We did important work, and we did it well. Better than that, we did it exceptionally well. We were experts in our fields, and we made each other better still because we depended on each other in ways that people who’ve never lived overseas could ever imagine.
Service members will only stay on active duty if they can provide for their families—and DOD schools provide a world-class education that has proven time and again to be an incentive for sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines to reenlist. Military dependents that attend DoDDS schools are highly regarded by prestigious universities the world over for a number of reasons, but there’s one that you’d have a hard time replicating in a stateside school system: they’ve lived overseas, traveled the world, seen and experienced other cultures, learned foreign languages through immersion, and they’ve gained an understanding of the world that you can’t get in a traditional classroom. Add a rigorous curriculum and a long track record of high test scores throughout DoDDS, and it’s pretty easy to see why military kids are in such high demand.
I needed to talk to my dad. My dad who had been to war, who had seen its horrors, who suffered from its nightmares, my dad who was a good man, the best man I’d ever known, who, along with my uncle, I wanted to honor by teaching military kids—my dad, the only one who I would believe if he would just tell me I could be good, too, that I could do right by my students, because for sure they were going to suffer. It’s just cause and effect. We’re at war. The military fights wars. I teach military kids. I’d never served, but now I could make a difference. I just needed my dad to tell me what to do, to tell me I was good enough to get it done.
I’m in my classroom and I’m looking at this girl, but all I can see is my dad on the ground, in front of The Wall, telling the truth, finally—his knees drawn and his chest heaving—and when people pass by they look the other way, except for this one lady who stops to give my dad a hug. She gets down on her knees to reach him, and now she’s crying with a stranger, and without asking I know it’s because she’s lost something, too, and I wonder if in comforting my dad she thinks she can find it again. Probably not. It doesn’t work that way.
Honestly, I had no idea how to respond. My senior year of college I’d taken a seminar titled Public Education: Situations and Strategies. I thought about emailing my professor, maybe suggest some new topics and help him get current. Maybe he’d invite me back as a guest lecturer. He’d probably expect some strategies along with the situations though, so I guess that wouldn’t work, but whatever.
The service members who defend our way of life ask very little in return, but they deserve teachers who will be as relentless in teaching their children as the military is in protecting our interests at home and abroad.
It’d be easy to blame everything on 9/11 or the wars that came after. It’s really about the choices we made. By necessity we adapt to the realities of the world we live in, but if we forget that how we live shapes and influences the world around us, then we’ve already lost.
It’s hard to describe being an expatriate of sorts to people who’ve never lived overseas, but when you’re an American living in a geographically separated region within a country like Korea, you form bonds with people who you’d never associate with stateside.
The only thing worse than his arrogance was his incompetence. He was a bully, behaving like an ass. I saw Angel though, not him. The memorial was right there, just outside the window. It’s in the flowers, and it makes me angry. Angel liked to sit on the couch, watch TV, eat chips. She hated outside. Maybe I should have been a bully and an ass to Angel’s parents. Maybe Angel and Grace would still be alive if I’d behaved like this piece of shit teacher.
Ahead in the distance we could see the main gate, but there was a sea of cars, none moving, people standing, milling around, waiting nervously, perhaps fearfully, as heavily armed MPs and military working dogs searched every square inch of every vehicle, searched every bag on every person, all the while keeping a vigilant eye on the long alley we were stuck in, and on the hundreds of rooftops that overlooked that alley, wary but aware that there were people out there who would gladly hurt us again if given the chance.
I asked my dad once if his high school teachers began treating kids differently during Vietnam, when they knew some of their students would be drafted and sent to war. I was curious because for sure we’d started treating our military kids differently after 9/11. He just shrugged and changed the subject, like he always did. And that was okay with me. He’d go back and change a lot of things if he could; and like everyone else, I’d give anything to go back to the day before 9/11—but all we can do is move forward.
It felt like we were reliving the first day of the school year, when students and teachers do the get-to-know-you dance—teachers tell students something about who they are, students pretend to care, and then vice-versa.
Always Sami. I was tethered to her somehow. To that scared little girl I’d found on the staircase nearly a year earlier; to the past, when teaching was simpler and I could care about everyday problems, when being relentless meant running two extra laps, not waiting for an MP to search the undercarriage of a bus for bombs before letting students approach it.
Korea is often called the Land of the Morning Calm. It’s a country where you notice the filth and the smog on your first trip and you can’t imagine why you ever thought it was a good idea to visit. Then you meet the people and you walk among their culture and you get a sense there is something deeper beneath the surface, and before you know it, the smog doesn’t matter and the filth is gone—and in its place there is incredible beauty. The sun rises first over Japan, and as Korea is waiting for the earth to spin, for streaks of light to brighten its eastern sky, in that quiet moment there is a calmness that makes Korea the most beautiful country in the world.
It was too late to pray, though. The sky was clear. The helicopters were gone. Too late for so many things. My fists hit the floor. My head hit the floor. My heart broke, hardened, and I lost my faith. That’s when the killing thoughts came. When it felt right to punish everyone who let this happen. I could start with Angel’s dad—but where would it stop?
In Korea I’d been so afraid that Sami would lose her dad. She did, but she didn’t get a flag. He went to Doha, then to Baghdad, then to Kabul, then to someplace else, and then to a different someplace else, on and on. He’d come home, leave again, come home, leave again, until one day he came home a different person altogether. Sami lost Angel, lost her family, and then she lost herself.
DPRK translates to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—and if the words Democratic and Republic sound like a good thing, well, it’s oxymoronic because the Korea we’re talking about here is the communist one in the North, and when I said the pastor’s father was their guest, what I really meant is he was shot down, captured, tortured, and held prisoner by a depraved enemy in what today can only be described as a failed state.
In my life I’ve been very lucky to travel around the world and see students and teachers in nearly two dozen countries—but the most awe-inspiring experience I’ve ever had was two years after 9/11 when I had the chance to attend a conference in Manhattan and personally meet many of the heroic teachers who persevered under conditions that in our worst nightmares we could never have imagined. In my opinion there’s not been nearly enough written about those teachers, and I hope that changes soon.
On the TV and in the newspapers all we hear and read is 'live your life or the terrorists win' and it sounds great, I’m all for that, except my kids won’t ask for a bathroom pass because the faculty facilities are on the first floor of the building and the MPs patrolling the second floor won’t go downstairs on their shift—so I’ve got middle school kids afraid to take a piss because there might be a soldier in the stall next to them carrying a loaded M- 16—but hell yes, I’m all for 'live your life' and screw the terrorists, and screw all the countries who harbor and support them. I’m on board with that, except I’ve got these kids who stay home now, because they’re scared riding a bus with soldiers carrying guns, knowing that one soldier isn’t enough, so there’s a military truck full of soldiers with even bigger guns following the bus 'just in case.
I felt a hand on my back, movement behind me, my guys making room, someone squeezing into our circle, and then one last hand joined the pile: my Korean aide. I guess it made sense. We were her real family. The closest thing she’d ever had to a real family, at least. All year she said maybe five words a day. 'Now kick some ass,' she said.
The last two days I’ve been on long bus rides, driven through the countryside on the back of a motorbike, and crossed rivers on wooden boats, traversing currents into a different century. It’s late and dark, but I’m so close now. My uncle died five kilometers from here.
As calls rang out the world over for new treaties and organizations to be established with the intent of preventing future wars, America and her allies took a more realistic approach to the problem—we maintained allied military bases across Europe and Asia and we stationed troops in these foreign territories on a permanent basis. We weren’t invaders or conquerors and for sure we had no intention of being an empire. We were liberators. That’s all. But having fought and sacrificed so much and for so long, the pragmatic thing to do was to follow this simple philosophy: it’s great to have dialogue, it just works a lot better when you have a strong military strategically placed and ready to act around the globe.
They were worried about keeping military families strong. They were worried about the stress and strain of prolonged military service and how it would affect our military readiness the next time a Hitler-wannabe reared his ugly head. As they made a list of pros and cons for sending families overseas, they never imagined that DOD schools would be the best possible solution to nearly every problem they could envision. The most unpredictable phenomena occurred. The DOD literally created a culture of kids whose life experiences were so rich, yet so different from where they’d come from, that as they grew in years the people they most related to, the people they most wanted to be around, were other military kids who had the same shared experience. Military kids became military members—and they’ve kept us strong, our families, armed forces, our country, all of us.