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We Don't Need Another Soldier

We Don't Need Another Soldier

Fall 2005

 
 

Marine recruiters speak with a high school senior and potential recruit.
Photo: AP / Worldwide photo by Jeff Roberson

A former student returns from the Marines

By Karl Meiner

When Satch,* who graduated in June 2001, returned to my classroom last spring, he bore little physical resemblance to the gangly, bespectacled youth who once sat in my sophomore English class. He strode through the door in neatly pressed military garb, hat pressed to his right hip, a thick-chested, heavily tattooed man. I noticed that contacts replaced the Coke-bottle glasses he once wore. But when we shook hands, his smile revealed more than a glimmer of the angry, confused kid who had struggled at school.

"They're shipping me to Iraq," he told me. "I leave in one week." The tone of his voice betrayed the poise and the confidence his uniform projected.

When Satch joined my sophomore English class in 1998, he had a reputation for being disruptive and rude. He often fought with his stepfather, and his mother struggled with drug dependency. It was no surprise that Satch was dealing with some anger.

Still, I found Satch's views refreshing. During our reading of 1984 he said that there existed only leaders and followers: He believed no one lived between the two. His work was generally rushed, superficial, and frequently late. But Orwell's book had fired him up and he participated often in our discussions. He was proud when he turned in a comparison essay between Oceania and blind faith in corporate logos.

I would often see Satch in the vice principal's office. He was suspended on several occasions for fighting, stealing, and skipping school. Here, his will pitted against an unabashedly tough disciplinarian, Satch paced angrily while his flushed face betrayed his otherwise stoic expression. I accompanied him on one occasion. At his request I told the V.P. that Satch's third-quarter grade was much improved over the prior two and that his attendance was regular. I was a third-year teacher, and I was certain Satch was far more at ease in the V.P.'s office than I was. In a stuttery, roundabout fashion, I said a suspension might hurt Satch's progress. The vice principal rescinded the suspension and Satch finished the year with a "C" in my class.

I never had Satch in my classroom again. But we stayed in touch and spoke often. Once we played basketball on my side of the Willamette River. Late in his senior year, he signed up with the Marines. I felt dismayed and helpless. It seemed to me that Satch had other—better—choices. I thought Satch had a gift for working with children. Our high school offers a course where older students serve as preschool instructors. Although initially I was skeptical of his ability to follow through on this commitment, when I visited him in the classroom, I could see that he was thriving. The instructor told me how much the kids loved climbing on his broad but bony shoulders. I regret that I didn't encourage Satch to take classes at Portland Community College geared toward early childhood education.

The Marines

On Sept. 11, 2001, Satch was serving in Europe. Through his emails I learned sparing details about the anti-terrorist unit he had been assigned to in the Mediterranean. When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Satch was stationed in Spain. He questioned the justification for the war and had difficulty staying quiet. "You taught me to think critically," he once wrote, "but here that isn't always possible."

By the time he came to my classroom door in late May 2005, Satch had grown up quite a bit. We spoke long into the afternoon about his feelings about both the political aspects of the war and his upcoming presence in Ramadi, a notoriously dangerous region. "I'm scared. I know I am." When Satch said this, his voice skipped an octave for just a moment. He swallowed carefully and then playfully picked up a wooden ruler from my desk and spun it in the air.

We walked together to a nearby restaurant and I bought him a cup of coffee.

I asked him if he wouldn't mind telling me about his experience with military recruiters, as their presence on campus had increased noticeably since September 2001.

"Since I been in I realized how much of the recruiters' job is bullshit. They're taught...trained...to talk easily about politics and how to make jokes. Seriously, they take lessons on this stuff."

Satch said that in high school he felt directionless. "Recruiters feed off of low esteem, man." The military recruiters who sought Satch's signature had promised him "a lot of respect, the chance to become a man who had a purpose. They glamorize it. Recruiters make the military to be exactly what you need it to be."

In high school, Satch had little money to spare. As his senior year arrived, and life after high school became imminent, Satch said he felt "vulnerable and confused. I was [the military's] perfect candidate." A leaflet in the counseling office drew his attention to the military. When a recruiter arrived in February of his senior year, Satch saw a way to escape "the reputation I had built for myself." Satch was vulnerable. But as our school's counseling office operates at a ratio of nearly 350 students for every one counselor, his contact there "was mainly to make sure I got out." The recruiter "made me feel like I could get somewhere in life, that I had options. You don't meet a lot of rich people in the Marines...[but] the recruiters talk a ton about money."

During our conversation, Satch was clear about his regrets. "I didn't know then I had other choices...if I did it all over again ...I'd wait."

I asked Satch if he would consider talking with a freshman English class of mine. This particular class had a handful of struggling students whose profile mirrored Satch's own early high school career. I hoped Satch's perspective might help them in their own encounters with military recruiters.

"Definitely. I don't mind," he said.

A Visit to Class

When he arrived in a second period ninth-grade classroom in early June, my students were eager for summer. A guest speaker was an exciting alternative to completing their final papers. The tall, blue-clad soldier with medals on his chest immediately caught their attention.

"Before I even talk, if you have any questions you can just ask them," Satch said. Typically eager to be first, one of the girls in the class shot her hand up. Satch nodded her way and she asked, "Do you think ...do you, like, agree with this war?"

Satch responded immediately that he "didn't as a civilian. That's the truth. But now ...I have a job to do ...I'll do what I am asked to do. But yeah, you have reasons to think, to question, about this war."

Several other students asked about where he had traveled and whether or not we would catch Osama bin Laden. Satch's answers were always clipped, deliberated, but direct.

"What I wanted to tell you, all of you," he said, "is that you don't know right now how many choices you have. Take advantage of them. If I was you again, I'd take a year off and just think about what I really wanted to do. I wouldn't have signed up so fast for the Marines. If I were you, I wouldn't sign anything fast."

Satch leaned forward on my podium. "You have to be careful if you're thinking about the military. Maybe it is right for you, but for a lot of people it's not. People get taken advantage of. If you are listening to recruiters, take everything they say with a grain of salt. Don't take what they say to heart."

As Satch spoke, my freshmen paid rapt attention. What I found most interesting was who asked the most questions. Tolin, a reticent student but devoted dirt bike fanatic, raised his hand more than he had all year. This was encouraging. Tolin is someone I consider to be a prime candidate for recruiters. If anything Satch said had sunk in, then more good came of this visit than any lesson I could have prepared on my own. One of my more enthusiastic students, Coryn, told me the next day that her older brother was thinking of joining the Marines and that Satch's visit had prompted her to talk to him about it. "I don't want him to ...[ignore] other opportunities."

I hoped more than anything that being forewarned about military recruiters' methods would mean that there was a chance that students would be less likely to be sold on the military as a post-high school panacea. The military has ways of reaching teens that transcend hallway conversations. Dazzling commercials and video games now serve as recruitment propaganda without context. There is no sense that "once you're in, you're theirs."

As new students filtered in for the next period, Satch retrieved his hat and I wrote down my new email address. I made him promise to write me and stay in touch.

We hugged awkwardly and then he said, as if foreseeing a question, "'Course I'll see you again soon." I walked him out the front doors of the school and watched as he walked through the clusters of teens to his car.

Satch is currently serving in Ramadi. I have received only one email to date. In clipped, terse language Satch says that he is "trying real hard to get adjusted to [the scale] of the destruction."

Although he's only in his early 20s, Satch's life is in jeopardy. He will likely face taking the lives of other people of all ages. I can't help but think I should have been more proactive in steering Satch to community college. Or perhaps I should have encouraged him to take some time off to think about his future and get a job in his community.

I use these regrets as I think about my students today. With no end in sight for this administration's wars, I believe I have a responsibility to counteract military recruiters' efforts in my school district. Teaching my students to question recruiters' promises could help to save their lives.

Satch reminded me that we are still connected to our students even after they leave our classrooms. Teaching in a time of war raises the stakes for everyone.

Karl Meiner (skyclear@teleport.com) teaches English at Wilson High School in Portland, Ore.

*All students' names have been changed.

Fall 2005

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