In Army town, teens keep war distant

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A couple of nights ago, Christen Brock found herself laughing hysterically at an old episode of "Seinfeld." Her father, an Army nurse, had just left for Iraq, and Christen was in need of a little diversion.

"There I was watching 'Seinfeld,' and I don't even like that show," says the high school senior. "I guess I'm just trying to block it out."

Christen's attempt to stand back from the war and her father's involvement in it is a common way to cope here in Killeen. In this one-task town, where sprawling Fort Hood can be seen from most anywhere, it's nearly impossible to find a child that doesn't either have a mom or dad already in battle or know a friend's parent who has been deployed.

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Indeed, more than half of the Killeen Independent School District's 28,000 students have at least one parent in the military. They live in a world where the acronyms MRE and BDU mean something, and they know that trouble overseas can mean a one-parent family for months at a time.

But the familiar rumble of tanks under the central Texas sun doesn't make things any easier to take - or understand. Some kids here, in fact, wrestle with the same difficult questions being asked in US communities less attuned to the war effort.

"I think it's mostly really bad," says seventh-grader Joshua Olivencia, trying to get into a pickup basketball game at a busy park. "We are spending a lot of money and sending a lot of guys over there who might die or get hurt. And I'm not really sure what for."

Joshua's father, a medic, was sent to Kuwait on Feb. 12 - and he heard from him once a week until the war started. Now, each night, he studies the grainy television images for a glimpse of the familiar. "I wish my dad didn't have to go over there, but I know he's going to be OK. He told me he was."

While some kids here - mostly those directly affected by the war - say they spend every free minute catching up on the news, a large number say they prefer to remain ignorant. Calculus equations and cruising the mall are still their top priorities, even with the largest post in the United States lurking in the background.

"A lot of us are leaving it up to our parents to tell us if something bad happens," says Ryan Smolinsky, a sophomore at Harker Heights High School. He's just stepped off a video-dance machine at an arcade inside the Killeen Mall, where the Japanese narrator declares his moves "perfect" and "great."

But the longer the war drags on, the more Ryan says he will pay attention. "A lot of us high-schoolers are worried about the draft starting up again. I'm going to stay in college as long as I can."

Even though he'd like others to do the fighting, Ryan believes the US should be in Iraq and says he was disappointed that the country got so little international support. "We helped out a lot of these countries in the past, and I feel bad that they are not backing us up when [we] finally ask for their support," he says as camouflaged soldiers mill about the mall.

Christen, his friend and fellow swim teammate, is a little more tentative in her endorsement of the war. "I have mixed feelings about it. A lot of families are being torn apart and people are dying, but the war will probably help our economy - at least that's what my dad says."

Many children echo the sentiments of their parents and other adults. Ninth-grader Brandon Wright, for instance, says he watched his neighbor ship out recently and recalls his attitude. "He didn't want to go, but he knew he had to. I mean, we have to keep the next Sept. 11 from happening."

Like many students near Fort Hood, Brandon believes that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the terrorist attacks - and therefore presents a future danger to the US. For this reason alone, they contend, the country was justified in declaring war on Iraq, even with little international support.

"They shouldn't have done what they did - bomb us with those planes and kill so many of our people," says Robert Burgett, sipping on an orange Slice and recalling Sept. 11. "Now they are gonna get it."

Robert says when he and his friends talk about the war among themselves, they tend to make jokes of it. They call out "Saddam, your momma," and make light of some mistakes on the battlefield.

But at home, this ninth-grader is constantly watching news reports and asking questions of his father, who fought in the first Gulf War as a national guardsman.

The two tend to talk war strategy and military hardware, but sometimes they simply remark on how "bad" the Iraqi leader is. He cites allegations that Mr. Hussein has used civilians as human shields and has cut off of food and water to them in certain areas of the country.

But more important, Robert worries that once Baghdad is surrounded, Hussein will begin using biological weapons. "We've got to get him out of the country."

But other kids say they don't understand why diplomacy wasn't given more of a chance, especially since very little proof of biological weapons has been found.

"There ain't no reason for war," says Mike Murillo, tossing his backpack over his shoulder on his way home from school. He's standing under a store marquee reading, "We support our troops" - a common sight around town.

But Mike remains unconvinced. "Why fight when you can talk?"

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