War's Chosen High School

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
San Francisco Chronicle
March 25, 2007
Pg. 15

Tucson classmates struggle to absorb nation's heaviest losses -- their friends, their youth
By Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tucson -- Sam Huff, class of '04 at Mountain View High School, was the first to be killed. The 18-year-old died on April 17, 2005, less than a year after her high school prom, when the humvee she was driving hit a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
Months later, Kenneth Ross, 24, class of '99, was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.
The next year, an insurgent's bomb in Iraq's Anbar province blew up Chad Kenyon, 20, class of '04.
Another bomb in Anbar killed Budd Cote, 21, class of '03.
In February, another member of the class of '04, Alan McPeek, 20, died in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, when an insurgent's shell killed him on the last day of his 14-month deployment.
"Everybody I knew who was over there is no longer with us," said Shaun Moreland, 21, McPeek's best friend, who also graduated from Mountain View High in 2004.
The impact has been devastating -- not only to the dead soldiers' families, but also to the classmates they left behind.
"The war just keeps getting closer and closer," said Ryan Azuelo, 21, who was vice president of the student body that year.
Mountain View High is the only school in the United States known to have lost so many former students. But across the country, the deaths of more than 3,200 troops have scarred young Americans whose friends were killed in the war, mental health experts and youth researchers say.
That is one reason, said Max Valiquette, president of Youthography, a Toronto-based research agency, why its most recent poll showed that Americans ages 14 to 29 list the war in Iraq as their top concern.
"They think the No. 1 most significant issue for their country and for people their age right now is this war," he said.
The Youthography poll surveyed 1,900 young people across the United States. In another survey, released last December by the Washington-based Young Voter Strategies, Americans ages 18 to 30 cited the war in Iraq as the main issue that shaped their voting decisions in November's midterm elections.
Mourning friends
The trauma that haunts thousands of veterans returning from the wars has been widely reported. Less studied is the impact of war-related grief and loss experienced by their young friends at home who have never stepped onto a battlefield.
"The focus (right now) is on those who raise their right hand and go in the military rather than the people they left behind," said Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Florida State University. "We don't know yet what indirect impact that (will have) at home."
McPeek went to Iraq with the 16th Engineer Battalion, attached to Task Force 1-37 Armor, in late 2005.
On Feb. 2, the day before he was due to finally leave for home, insurgents opened fire at Combat Outpost Grant, an abandoned concrete building in violence-prone Ramadi. McPeek and Pvt. Matthew Zeimer, 18, a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division's 3-69 armor battalion, which had arrived the previous week to replace McPeek's unit, ran to the roof of the outpost to fire back at the insurgents. It was Zeimer's first combat assignment. An explosive round blasted through the reinforced concrete wall, killing them both.
Friends drop by almost every day at McPeek's one-story brick home in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, where a black flag bearing an Army coat of arms and the words "Served with Pride" flies from the eaves next to metal wind chimes. They share pizza, beer and stories of teenage mischief with McPeek's father, Kevin Doyle, who said they "talk like adults."
"We are helping each other get through this," he said.
But each time they get together is a reminder that their friends never will join them again for hair-raising midnight rides through Tucson's streets, or hang out with them in the dusty dry washes that cut through the city, or party hard, like they did back in the day.
"After high school, to see these friends die what seemed like back to back," said one of McPeek's classmates, Derrick Greene, 21. He trailed off, crying silently. "I have this in-shock kind of feeling." Azuelo wiped away tears with the back of his left hand.
One school's dedication
Mountain View High School has no memorial for the dead, and recruiters from various branches of the military still visit with students at the cafeteria on the sprawling red brick campus in a working class neighborhood of Tucson. Between 25 and 50 seniors enlist each year, said Verna Sharp, career center coordinator at the school of 2,200 students.
"It's unfortunate that five students from our school (were killed) -- I think it shows more of a dedication," Sharp said. "All the students that had sacrificed their lives over there, their statement was that they'd do what it takes to serve their country."
Joel Holodynski, class of '04, who joined the Army that year, said his "friends were split on the issue of the war, and I wasn't sure which side to take, so I decided to go."
Holodynski, who is deployed in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, wrote in an e-mail that he "felt like something was really going on in the world, and I was just the right age to be a part of it."
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into. ... At the age of 17, I was too naive, and I was full of ideals based upon books and movies," he wrote.
His classmate and friend Amber Thill, a member of the 164th Military Police Company stationed in Fort Richardson, Alaska, said she joined the military because she didn't know what else to do after graduating from Mountain View High.
It was Sam Huff who introduced Thill to her military recruiter. They went through basic training two weeks apart.
"She was so brilliant. She could have had a full scholarship. She could have had anything," Thill said by phone from Alaska. "She was incredibly smart, very popular. I think she just wanted to defend her country."
Thill was in Afghanistan when Huff was killed. She had Sam's name tattooed on her right shoulder, and visited Huff's grave at Arlington National Cemetery during leave last year.
"I went to the cemetery, and she's surrounded by Rangers and officers and all those big, tough, important guys," said Thill, who expects to be deployed to Iraq later this year.
Her voice caught, and she started crying. "And it was April, and there were cherries in blossom. And she had a grave right there, among all those important Army guys. Sam. There she is."
Angry and driven
McPeek, whose mother is a Navy veteran, enlisted when he was 17. He wanted to be a military engineer, defusing roadside bombs.
"One day he came home from high school with a recruiter," said his father, who works at a waste management company. "We would have paid for him to go to college, but ... he had his mind set ...
"He was pissed about 9/11. He said he wanted to make a difference. There was no talking Alan out of it."
Some of McPeek's friends thought about enlisting. Moreland, who has a lower lip piercing and long hair that falls over his eyes, could not join because of poor eyesight. He distributes signs for a real estate company and works part time as a wildland firefighter.
Greene and Azuelo used to keep in touch with McPeek via e-mail and instant messages on MySpace, but decided against joining him in the military. Greene sells used cars at a dealership in Tucson. Azuelo is a service representative at a Caterpillar equipment rental outlet and attends a community college, hoping to become a police officer.
They still party hard. But for them, and for their friends who still serve, the indestructibility of youth is gone.
"It certainly brings it closer to home: like, s -- , this can happen," Thill said.
"We'd thought that they were invincible," said Greene, who is friends with Holodynski and who knows Thill. "Now I worry all the time."
Last week, Holodynski wrote: "When I'm on base, I'm hearing about the people getting killed in the war ... and when I go home, I'm grieving with my friends for the friends we lost. When I leave home, I never say goodbye anymore. It's 'I'll see you later,' and there is a lot of tears."
Tired of bad news
In Tucson, Azuelo squatted on the balcony of his apartment and dropped his head in his hands when he talked about Huff, whom he had dated on and off at Mountain View High.
"My mom and her mom always said that Sam and I were gonna get married," he said. "That's what makes it so hard."
His parents called him to tell him that Huff had been killed; Greene called to tell him about McPeek. He dreads receiving more bad news from overseas.
"Two phone calls now that I've had like that," he said, sobbing. "I don't know if I could get through another."
When Huff was killed, "that was actually the first time Alan realized that he was scared about going to Iraq," Greene said. "He knew his life could be over next week, next month, next year."
Friends visit McPeek, who is buried in the veterans section of Tucson's Evergreen Cemetery. A few weeks ago, they made a late-night pilgrimage, jumping fences and stumbling over graves.
Not long after that, Moreland came alone, and left an unopened can of beer on McPeek's grave.
Last week, the can was gone, and only a small plastic G.I. Joe that McPeek's mother had brought stood guard next to an American flag and two bunches of plastic flowers. Moreland's shadow lay across his friend's grave in the early afternoon sun.
He lit a Marlboro Red, McPeek's favorite, smoked half of it, then bent over and stuck the cigarette in the dry dirt at the head of the grave, where he imagined McPeek's lips would have been.
"It's the hardest thing in the world," said Moreland. "I never thought I'd be doing this with my best friend."
He watched in silence as the remains of the Marlboro Red glistened and burned away.