by Leslye Joy Allen Historian, Educator, Theatre & Jazz advocate, Doctoral Student
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
My last blog for Cascade Patch attempted to remind everyone that Tuskegee Airman, one Lt. Col. Charles W. Dryden had a clear vision about what and whom he was fighting against when he valiantly fought in World War II.
Yet, another group of soldiers now struggle with what it meant to be in the military in Iraq; and some are still trying to understand the complicated mission of remaining in Afghanistan. The following is a personal story about one of my former students:
Back in 2008 when I was teaching United States and World History courses at a local junior college, I encountered a young 20-something male student who I initially feared might earn an “F” in my class. Like many students I have encountered in recent years, writing was not his forte; and history is research and writing intensive. However, much like many other students, he performed much better on his second paper after he followed the directions, suggestions, and criticisms I wrote on his first paper.
It is a thrill to watch a struggling student take off at top speed and make real, concrete progress. This student, who I will refer to here as “M,” did just that. There is still only one problem: M has not yet been able to pick up his final paper, a paper where he worked like a trooper to earn an “A.”
A few weeks before that semester in 2008 ended, M approached me after class to let me know that he was in the U. S. Army Reserves. He was part of a reserve troops that would soon go to Iraq. His deployment could occur at any time and at a moment’s notice. He feared he would have to leave for Iraq before the semester ended. He worried about missing his final examinations. I told him not to worry. He had enough graded assignments for me to figure out his grade point average if it became necessary.
Since educators and employers are required by law to accommodate, as best we can, those employees and students who may be called to military service, I had to come up with the best possible solution for M. After discussing the matter with my department head, I decided to wave his having to take my final examination. After a careful review of all of his grades, he averaged a solid “B.” He left for Iraq, however, before I could return his last paper.
A few days after his departure, he emailed me to let me know that he had safely arrived. He thanked me for all that I had taught him, and asked me to remember him in my prayers. He also told me that I had taught him to “think outside of the box.” I freely admit that I can be a bit radical and unorthodox. I would never have survived even working in the post office in Uncle Sam’s army. When M made that comment, I wondered how my teaching him to “think outside the box” would actually help him in Iraq.
I quickly responded and asked that he email me and his other instructors to let us know how he was doing. He responded that he would try to stay in touch, but that his commanding officer had warned him about sending too many emails. Because of where he was located in Iraq, it might be dangerous to regularly contact too many United States citizens by email as the area was potentially teeming with internet-savvy terrorists. Emails, he wrote, were particularly vulnerable to enemy infiltration. That worried me.
Sure enough, his emails abruptly stopped. Months after his departure, I wondered if he was still alive. I even caught myself paying extra attention to news reports of casualties in Iraq. Then, I misplaced the last paper I graded for him. Misplacing the paper felt like a bad omen. Then in 2009, I ran across a blog where a blogger had spoken with Paul Rieckhoff, the author of the Iraq Memoir Chasing Ghosts. Of soldiers in Iraq, Rieckhoff stated:
“This is not a drafted army, it’s a professional force, so folks are staying in longer, they’re older and they’re more likely to have families…But those who are being killed and injured are disproportionately young — the people you played soccer with and went to high school with.” (For the full article, go to: http://stand-up-4-veterans.tressugar.com/Toll-Iraq-US-Soldiers-3294102)
After I read the blog, I felt worse. I knew that any war almost always consists of young soldiers, but exactly how young? How often had military service in Iraq or Afghanistan interrupted college students’ educations?
Another year passed and soon, I briefly forgot about M. Then, in 2010, I got a phone call from a former co-worker. She received news that one of her former students was killed in Iraq. I did not know this particular student well, but she did. With both of us weeping over lives lost too young, I thought about M again. I did not email him for fear that I would not receive a reply email and again wonder if he was still alive. I could not and cannot imagine what the families of these young women and men have gone through during the course of the Iraq war and the seemingly endless problems in Afghanistan.
Right before this past Christmas 2011, I decided to sort through the tons of papers and assorted items that had accumulated into a small mountain on my dining room table. There were stacks of papers, books, photographs, and notebooks on the table and in boxes around the table and elsewhere in my house. We historians are the world’s most notorious packrats, always afraid that we might throw away some document we might need later for our research. Yet, enough was enough.
After sorting through all of the excess and deciding what might go into the recycling bin, I found the last paper M wrote that I graded at the bottom of one of my many boxes. Early Christmas morning, I summoned the nerve to email him to ask how he was doing, noting that I had just stumbled across the last paper he turned in for my World History class. FYI: M’s paper was about one of the Zanj revolts that took place in the Afro-Arabic world (Look it up if you do not know what I am talking about because I am not even going to define “Zanj” for any reader younger than M.)
Later that Christmas night, I received an email from M stating that he was well, but still in Afghanistan. The military has now deployed him OVER FIVE TIMES. Scheduled to return home in the summer of 2012, he noted that he felt like Iraq and Afghanistan were recipes for civil war. Indeed, he said, Afghanistan already was engaged in what he believed to be a civil conflict that neither the United States military’s presence (or absence) could remedy. Later on January 10, 2012, I stumbled on an article that described how the Taliban attempted to invade a government building in East Afghanistan. I worried again.
As a historian, I study and lecture about politics, the performance arts, racism, social change, and war all the time. Yet, nothing prepared me to watch a young scholar go off to war with his education interrupted or to contemplate that he might not make it back home.
M emailed me that the military had taught him how to think one way, but he emphasized that I had taught him another way to look at and examine the world.
“You taught me to see things for more than what is put in front of me,” he wrote. In the last weeks of 2011 and the first month or so of 2012, when we Black folks have lost so many of our brothers and sisters in so many ways, I am thankful, grateful, and rather proud of M’s compliment.
Yet, as far as I am concerned, U. S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq can only officially end for me when I can put M’s final graded paper in his hand.
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
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