The 2003-04 school year was tough and emotional, says Joy Magowan, a senior literature teacher at Baumholder High School. But parents and students say Magowan and other teachers held schools together while troops were deployed.

The 2003-04 school year was tough and emotional, says Joy Magowan, a senior literature teacher at Baumholder High School. But parents and students say Magowan and other teachers held schools together while troops were deployed. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — In Baumholder, where 98 percent of students had a parent deployed to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division, the 2003-04 school year could have been a disaster.

Reflecting back as a new term begins, those who experienced it chose the word “tough” over and over again to describe what that school year was like.

“The toughest time was when a little boy in his class, when the boy’s father died,” said Pamela Brown, whose son, Travaris, was an 8-year-old third-grader at Wetzel Elementary.

The death “had an effect on all the kids,” said Brown, whose own husband, Sgt. Nelson Brown, was deployed with Company C, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment.

Vicki Morgan’s daughter, Kristina Square, was in a first-grade class at Smith Elementary, where two students lost their fathers. Morgan’s husband, Staff Sgt. Jerry Morgan, was deployed with the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment.

On April 28, eight 4-27 soldiers were killed by a suicide car bomber in Baghdad, the single greatest loss of life for the division during 15 months in Iraq.

The deaths caused profound remorse in all the children who knew the people, Morgan said. “And even if you didn’t know the person, it was tough … because this is a small community,” she said.

On the more prosaic side, many parents were not around to help their children with schoolwork.

Sgt. Robert Morris said his daughter Katherine, 9, a fourth-grader at Smith Elementary, struggled while he was gone. While he was in Iraq with the 40th Engineer (Combat) Battalion, his German wife Rosemarie — uncomfortable in English — had difficulty helping their daughter with her homework.

“She was stuck on homework,” Morris said. “Just plain stuck.”

It was, in short, “a tough, emotional year,” said Joy Magowan, a senior English literature teacher and senior adviser at Baumholder High School. It could have been an academic disaster, with students too distracted — even depressed — to learn.

Keeping things ‘normal’

For the most part, that didn’t happen.

More than a dozen people — teachers, students, parents and administrators — interviewed said school proceeded as normally as could be expected considering the situation.

Detentions didn’t rise, and grades and test scores didn’t drop. Though Terra Nova scores fluctuated at Baumholder schools, there were no clear trends. Verbal SAT scores at Baumholder were the same from 2002 to 2003 — which would have included the 1st AD’s departure — though math scores fell dramatically.

The number of high school expulsions and suspensions actually dropped to 153 for the year ending last June from 175 during 2002-03, said Candace Ransing, deputy director of Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe.

There were slight drops in attendance at the beginning of the deployment, then when the division was extended for 90 days, said Dom Calabria, Baumholder principal.

“But we solved that right away by making a few phone calls” to parents, he said.

District accreditation teams went to schools where troops were deployed “expecting the worst … kids crying in the hallways” and frantic teachers, Calabria said. Instead, Baumholder and nearby Neubrücke Elementary received exceptional ratings.

Teachers, parents and students offered myriad explanations why the system worked, from the resilience of military children to extraordinary efforts by teachers and school administrators, to DODDS deployment programs instituted since the first Gulf War.

“With everything else in their lives turned upside down,” school routines imparted a sense of normalcy that helped students cope, said Frank O’Gara, DODDS spokesman.

“In the first Gulf War, we were learning,” O’Gara said. Then came deployments for the two Europe-based divisions to Bosnia and Kosovo, with DODDS developing deployment and crisis plans. The 2002 deployment to Bosnia created a core of teachers “who’d already been through it,” Calabria said.

Different wars

Martha Sommer, a fourth-grade teacher at Neubrücke Elementary, says she saw a big difference between the 1991 Gulf War, when she was a teacher at Ansbach Elementary, and the 2003-04 school year.

Twelve years ago, it “was horrible,” she said. There was no Internet. No easy way for families to stay connected during deployments, Sommer said.

And because it had been so long since a major deployment, many spouses had no idea their soldiers could really go to war, she said.

“They thought they were here to go shopping in Poland,” Sommer said of some family members. In 1991, “I saw mothers break down,” Sommer said.

This time around, “the mothers were so much the backbone” of the community, she said. For example, the 90-day extension of the 1st AD — announced on April 16 — happened during DODDS’ spring break.

To a great extent, mothers had children back on track before school resumed, Sommer said. Teachers talked about the extension, then went on with lessons, she said.

Modern Army families have few illusions, said Pamela Brown: “My kids understand what my husband’s job is.” They know, she said, that whether it’s to the field or war, “he could leave at any time.”

Another major difference between 1991 and 2003 was that during the first Gulf War, the war became a taboo subject, Sommer said. “It was sort of a hush-hush thing.”

This time around, the deployment was woven into nearly every school day, which teachers said diffused the tension.

Sherry Brooks, who teaches at Neubrücke, had her English as a Second Language students writing letters to soldiers. Students put together packages for soldiers and for Iraqi kids, and wrote letters to single soldiers, she said. A Neubrücke counselor held daily lunch talks for students coping with parents being away.

Weaving the war into the class day help students move on to work, Brooks and Sommer said.

Teachers “let kids vent,” senior English literature teacher Magowan said. They queried students at the beginning of the day as to how things were going. Those, like her, who opposed the war, consciously kept their personal feelings out of their teaching.

Still, teachers were emotionally tested along with students, she said.

Magowan recalls the look in the eyes of a ninth-grader whose father was injured in an attack that killed a number of other soldiers. “It was a look of pure relief of having him safe at home. He was so lucky,” she said.

With her own husband, Capt. Steve Nguyen deployed, Baumholder High math teacher Trinh Nguyen and her students went through the same highs and lows.

The April 16 announcement of a 90-day extension “was like an 8.9 earthquake,” Nguyen said. “Our hearts dropped….”

The natural impulse is to reassure students, but teachers can’t tell them anything but the truth, Magowan said.

“You can’t say, ‘Everything’s going to be OK. Your father’s going to come home and everything’s going to be OK.’ You can’t say that.”

She got to the point of “making little deals in my head,” Magowan said. “‘Please don’t let any other parents of our senior students die before graduation.’”

Brave, tough kids

Magowan and others said a core reason schools didn’t falter was the students themselves. She describes children from military families as more resilient, “braver and tougher” than their counterparts at civilians schools.

During the 15 months the 1st AD was in Iraq, children back home grew up fast.

“I became the second adult in the house,” said Kaishia Elliott, 16, after her father, Spc. Phillip Hughes, 4th Forward Support Battalion, left for Iraq.

At her house, the Baumholder varsity cheerleader said, “the philosophy is grades, grades, grades. You can’t do anything in life without and education.”

So she maintained her A’s and B’s even as it fell to her — the eldest — to help her mother, Rachel, with her three brothers and two sisters.

“I grew up more. With the head of the family gone, it was like, ‘I need to get serious,’ ” to set an example for the younger children. Despite it all, the school year “wasn’t bad,” she added.

Parents are unanimous that teachers and administrators carried much of the burden at Baumholder High.

“They were awesome for the whole 15 months,” said Vickie Morgan. “They stayed on kids to graduate,” she said, adding that teachers went out their way to help stressed students and parents, even picking up homework assignments.

Baumholder High counselor Shirley Lips, Calabria and Magowan “were like a second set of parents to these kids,” Morgan said.

She doesn’t expect the same level of school support as the family prepares for a stateside assignment, and is sad to be leaving soon.

“When you get great people in your life,” Morgan said, “you never want them to leave.”

—Reporter Kevin Doughtery contributed to this report.

Teacher shares common bond with students

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The first day of school last year, math teacher Trinh Nguyen asked her eighth-graders at Baumholder High School, “How many of you have a mom or dad downrange?”

She chose the word “downrange” deliberately over “in Iraq,” Nguyen said.

Any child from an Army family knows “downrange” is Army-speak for deployed.

“They said, ‘Oh, she knows! Mrs. Nguyen knows something.’ That’s very important,” Nguyen said. When they found out her husband, Capt. Steve Nguyen, was downrange with the 1st Armored Division’s headquarters company, the connection between military families was “very dear to them,” she said.

Nguyen, 30, is one of the rare Department of Defense Dependent Schools teachers married to a soldier.

Her students with deployed parents at this 2nd Brigade and Division Artillery headquarters “were more like sons and daughters, not just students,” Nguyen said. Yet, as much as she sympathized and empathized with her charges, she stressed that she never lowered her classroom expectations.

That their teacher was in the same boat as they were — missing a loved one at war — helped build instant rapport, Nguyen said. “We leaned on each other. We shared the happiness, and we endured the pain,” she said. “It was comforting to look forward to going to school.”

And like her students, she had to sometimes steel herself against bad news.

Her husband was among the 1st AD officers and soldiers in Kuwait and on their way home last April when the news came down that the division was remaining in Iraq for a 90-day extension.

“He called one night about 11 p.m. and said, ‘I have some bad news to tell you.’ But I was prepared. I said, ‘Oh, you’re heading back to Iraq. Be careful, and finish the mission.’ ”

Now, she’d like to take a closer look at the effects of deployment on students.

Nguyen, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology and student assessment, is considering a post-graduate study comparing the emotional and academic development of children who experienced the deployment with those who didn’t.

“Is there a difference in responsibility? In study skills? Time management? Organizational skills? Leadership skills? Are they [children of deployed families] more rebellious?”

There’s a lot, Nguyen said, that parents can learn from these students.

— Terry Boyd

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