On A Military Base, Comfort For Students Whose Parents Are At War

December 20th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: On A Military Base, Comfort For Students Whose Parents Are At War

New York Times
December 20, 2006
Pg. B7

By Samuel G. Freedman
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — As she watched the plane lift into the sky, carrying her father toward a year’s duty in Iraq, Azzia Philyaw stood in a parking lot near this military base and sobbed. She was a few weeks shy of her fifth birthday on that day in September, a few weeks into kindergarten. Her father had been the one who played Xbox with her and gave her piggyback rides and stopped by school to eat lunch, scrunched down beside her in a child’s chair.
The night he left, Azzia cried herself to sleep, then awoke shrieking with a nightmare that her father’s plane had crashed. Over the next few weeks, she dreamed of him being shot, of him missing an arm. Rattled in the midnight blackness, she crept into her mother’s bedroom to ask, “Has Daddy called?” and “Is my Daddy going to die?”
Sometime early in October, Azzia’s kindergarten teacher, Nancy Welsh, noticed the girl dropping off to sleep during story time. It happened again a few days later. As Ms. Welsh thought about it, she realized Azzia had gone from the bubbly, inquisitive girl of the school year’s start to one who was lethargic, unsmiling, just plain exhausted.
In her 29th year of teaching at the public schools on Fort Bragg, Ms. Welsh knew both intuitively and experientially what was the matter. In her kindergarten class at McNair Elementary School, 11 of 19 children had a parent deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Throughout the school, about one-third of the 350 pupils were similarly missing a parent, and early in 2007, even many more mothers and fathers will be shipped into the theaters of wars that are known in military parlance as “down-range.”
So Ms. Welsh had Azzia bring in a snapshot of her father, Sgt. Untabious Philyaw, and tape it inside her cubby, so she could see it and kiss it every day. She helped Azzia write him letters, every blank space on the page covered with X’s and O’s of vicarious smooches. And Ms. Welsh wrote a lullaby for Azzia to sing to herself before bed, doggerel to ward off the nocturnal terrors.
“I want to give my kids security,” said Ms. Welsh, pausing at a break in class one day last week. “To acknowledge they have a dad and they miss him. Not to pretend they don’t think about it. To make them realize their dad still loves them. And that he misses them. When we send letters and pictures to Azzia’s dad, I tell her: ‘He’s so proud of you. He’s going to hang this in his tent and show it to all his buddies.’ ”
That tender exchange between Azzia and Ms. Welsh is a commonplace here at McNair and at many of the 200 schools operated by the Defense Department on military bases in the United States and overseas. In so many of America’s schools, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are felt only distantly as the grist for current-events discussions and classroom debates. But in military-base schools like McNair, a nation at war means a mother or father gone and in danger for months or even years.
“Our biggest thing is making the kids feel that school is a constant, that it’s a safe place, a home,” said Timothy Howle, the principal of McNair. “You don’t want to say, ‘Everything’s always going to be all right,’ because you don’t want to give false assurance. But we do want the kids to know that Mom or Dad know their job. They’re prepared. And everybody will do their best to see them come home.”
Such a message carries particular credibility from Mr. Howle. He was a captain in the Army’s Special Forces, sending his own children to McNair, and after retirement from the military became a teacher here. His faculty includes both veterans and Army brats, who grew up as the children of soldiers. It also has several teachers whose spouses are deployed or soon will be, putting them in the same position as their pupils.
“They’re more than sympathetic,” said Lisa Green, the mother of two McNair pupils, whose husband has been in Iraq since August. “Anyone can say, ‘Oh, it must be hard.’ But that’s different when it’s your loved one who’s faced with death every second. You don’t know when someone will knock on your door and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Here at McNair, there’s that extra backbone.”
The support takes myriad forms, including diversion. Gary Wieland won the Silver Star while serving with the Special Forces during the Vietnam War and now teaches third grade in a room adorned with headgear ranging from a jester’s cap to a Viking helmet. Students may borrow them at will. When the class scored high in the 90s on a standardized test last spring, Mr. Wieland took up the childrens’ dare to wear a dress.
In a ritual that deftly combines goofiness and gravity, Mr. Wieland invites into his classroom every father preparing to deploy. There the teacher pays one dollar “for absolute parental rights” to the child until Dad returns. He did this with Untabious Philyaw, because Azzia’s older brother, Tedrick, is in the class.
Mr. Wieland maintains his own e-mail correspondence with parents stationed overseas, and has his students develop class projects based on the soldiers’ experiences. Last week, Tedrick gave a presentation on his father’s job running a mobile water-purification unit in a quartermaster battalion. Sympathy, though, isn’t pity. When Tedrick faltered on a math assignment the other day, Mr. Wieland declared in a deadpan tone: “To the dungeon.”
Other teachers at McNair have made and sent parents everything from Christmas cards to gift packages to CDs of students’ work. Outside Mr. Howle’s office hangs an array of photographs of parents in uniform beneath the legend “Wall of Heroes.” George Small, the school’s guidance counselor, takes about a dozen children there every morning to say hello to the parents. As the students walk past the wall toward the cafeteria for lunch, Mr. Small has noticed, some make a point of touching fingertip to picture.
As for Azzia, she still has bad dreams sometimes, said her mother, Belinda. One recent night, the girl awakened and turned on the television. While searching for the Disney Channel, she wound up on CNN, paralyzed by a news broadcast from Iraq. When Belinda heard the noise and opened her eyes, Azzia said: “I seen the Army guy. I’m waiting to see Daddy.”
Ms. Welsh’s lullaby, though, has made such nights rarer. Before tuck-in time, Azzia will sing these words about her father:
“I can dream we’re going to play piggy-back ride.
“I can dream we’re going to play Xbox.
“I can go to sleep now.
“And dream we’re going to eat lunch together.”

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