The following are excerpts from a fall Media Writing/Editing II class project, created under the direction of adjunct professor Gayle Reaves, editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.
By Media Writing II
Psychology junior Michael Meyers spent his days with dead and living heroes. In the Army office at Fort Hood, his job for a while was rewriting recommendations for those who'd been nominated for medals and other honors.
One story in particular lodged in his memory – that of an enlisted man whose unit was guarding the entrance to a base in Iraq when insurgents attacked with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. As the U.S. soldiers hit the dirt, the enlisted man rolled on top of his platoon sergeant to shield him from shrapnel. The specialist died, the sergeant lived – and got the greater honor.
Meyers hadn't been to Iraq then, still hasn't. He'd been in the Army about a year and a half when, in April 2004, he was sent to Fort Hood, north of Austin, to join a unit that had just come back from Iraq.
Almost a year later, as his unit prepared to return for another tour in the Middle East, Meyers got word that he'd received an Army scholarship to TCU for officer training. He wouldn't have to leave his wife Jen – now also a TCU student – and baby girl behind to go with his unit to a war zone. At least, not for a while: After he graduates in 2009, he'll go back on active duty for four more years, and who knows what the world will be like then.
As TCU students go about their lives, studying for exams, enjoying a beer, making plans for the weekend, the war in Iraq seems to be on few people's minds. In an informal Facebook poll by a TCU journalism class last fall, more than half of the 100 students who responded said they see no effect of the war on their daily lives or on the people around them.
And yet the war's effects flow through and around campus and the larger city. Only one TCU graduate is known to have died in Iraq, but other current or former TCU students, staff and faculty members feel the pain and bear part of the toll.
Some have already served there; some have lost friends or family members there. A helicopter blade sits in the office of one faculty member, a reminder of a mortar blast that knocked him off his feet. A faculty member who has studied the Middle East watches the body toll mount and tries to explain to his American students the damage he believes the conflict is doing to Iraqis – and the damage it is doing to the support for America around the world.
And an Iraqi vet and TCU student, who no longer believes that American soldiers can force-feed democracy to Iraq, still sees the value of his fellow soldiers working to help the people of that country – a struggle he may rejoin some day.
During World War II, Americans were united, almost universally, in their belief that fighting fascism and its horrors was a worthy cause. By the last years of the Vietnam conflict, the United States was deeply divided over the war's toll and its justification. The situation was the opposite of unanimity – but the very violence of the division meant that few lacked an opinion, and the changes that Vietnam helped bring about affected every part of this country.
Neither situation exists now. While opposition to the war grows every day, there is also a deep current of support for the troops themselves – and perhaps a growing realization among Americans that they really don't understand the war.
All of that – and the lack of a draft – helps explain the low level of concern about Iraq on many college campuses. In the informal Facebook survey, close to half those who responded said they oppose the war – but another 42 percent support it. As a group, they couldn't decide whether things were improving or deteriorating there – 25 percent thought things were getting better, 27 percent said worse, and the rest said it's about the same.
That same ambivalence and confusion is reflected in the opinions of those who've served in Iraq, and even in the families of those who have lost loved ones there. Some veterans of the war believe in the U.S. mission there; others have doubts – usually carefully expressed doubts.
The mother of Tristan Aitken '95, a TCU graduate who believed deeply in what he was doing in Iraq before he died there, opposes the war and thinks the Army has never told her the truth about what happened to her son.
As another year begins, some in the TCU community are grateful to be back home from war, safe and with their families, but with less than happy memories of what they experienced there. Others study and wait, to see if and when their turn will come – or in some cases, come for the second or third time – to join this generation's far-away, seldom thought of, often misunderstood war.
On the TCU campus, a Veterans Plaza in front of Reed Hall honors the 68 Horned Frog graduates who died in a century's worth of this country's conflicts, from World War I through the conflict in Iraq. Former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams '72, a member of the TCU Board of Trustees, led the campaign to raise money for the memorial.
"There are athletic halls of fame, academic honors and band honors, but" – until the memorial was dedicated in 2005 – "no one was honoring our veterans on campus," Williams said.
In the Iraq-era years, only two names are listed, and Aitken's is the only one with the star that denotes those who died in combat. Aitken came here for college because his mom, Ruth, found out that TCU had one of the top ROTC programs in the country. But after he visited the campus, she said, he told her, "I realized that was the place for me."
Theirs was a tight-knit family, Ruth Aitken said, even though she found Tristan's choice of a military career hard to understand. From the beginning, she said, her son knew that she opposed the war in Iraq. She asked him one day if he wanted her to keep her mouth shut about the war. No, she recalled him telling her, "I'm fighting for your right to say whatever you want to say. It's your job to exercise that right."
Conversations like that put her a little more at ease when he shipped out. "I wasn't worried about my son," she said, "I was worried for everyone else's son" – fighting in what she found to be an illogical war that had nothing to do with stopping terrorism.
Peter Ort, Tristan's best friend, saved the last e-mail he got from Tristan. When he got back from Iraq, he told Ort, he was going to be stationed in Texas again. But for the moment, he and his unit were sitting "12 kilometers from the Iraq border and training up for what is expected."
His mission, Tristan said, was "to get everyone back safely to their wives and family, and I can't do it without the Lord's help." So he asked Ort to say a prayer for him and his troops and to pass the request on to others. "I feel like it is the moment before the big game," he said, and reminded Ort of the "winner's creed" they used to recite before sporting events, reaffirming that a true winner gives his best "always to the Glory of God."
As for Ruth Aitken, she is still opposed to the war and still struggling to deal with her son's death. She's still not sure the Army has ever told her the real story of what happened to him. "It seems like every time I talk to someone about my son's death, I get a very different story of what really happened," she said.
Andy Heckathorne, another longtime friend of Tristan, heard from Ort about Tristan's request for a prayer. And it was from Ort that he heard of Tristan's death. He sat down the next day and created a memorial Web site for him.
Since then, Heckathorne said, his opinions about Iraq haven't changed that much – he still thinks the U.S. entered the war for the right reasons, even if things now seem much more complex.
"I have wanted more than ever to see the end result be a positive and long-term one," he said, "so Tristan's death is not in vain."
He works at Penn State University, and he thinks that most students there, like most at TCU, "live like the war is not going on." For most of them, the war has been going on since they were in high school, he said. "I think they're probably bored with it."
Students Camila Andres, Robert Bember, Ligia Bermudez, Jeff Callison, Julie Carter, Rob Crabtree, Casey Crawford, Meghan Crowley, Corbin Granthan, Brittnee Lahera, Kelsey Mize, Chance Welch, Katie Winter, Jasmine Yee, and Mary Frances McDougald contributed to this story.
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