10-3-11: “Certain Neighborhoods, Certain Backgrounds”
Like about 99 percent of other Americans, for me, the war in Afghanistan is, on a certain level, an abstraction. I read about it, I discuss the ways in which we might extricate ourselves, the dangers we might face when and if we do. But fewer than one percent of our citizens are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if you travel in certain circles, it’s likely that you won’t know anyone who’s actually in them. These were the circles in which I traveled until last Friday, when Specialist Paul Wright boarded a plane with his buddies from Alpha Troop, 113th Cavalry, and flew from Ft. Bliss, Texas, to Bagram Air Base in the Nerkh Valley of Afghanistan. I haven’t slept very well since.
I have been Paul’s mentor in the Big Brother Big Sister program for the past 12 years, since he was eight years old. When he was little, we hung out. We went to the library. We did homework. We ran errands. We cooked. We ate. When Paul found himself in trouble at school, which was pretty often, I chatted up his teachers, and I stayed on his case about attendance, and behaving himself. We talked a lot. We still do.
My daughter, Miranda, is a couple of years older than Paul. When they were children, and the three of us were driving around, we had car rules. Those rules stated that they would take turns sitting in the front seat, and that each of them could control three of the pre-set buttons on the radio. They understood that they each had the right to choose from an equal number of options.
But car rules aren’t life rules. As they got older, the choices they had in their lives were much different. Miranda attended an elite private school in North Baltimore. Paul attended, sporadically, Walbrook High School in West Baltimore, a hell-hole of a place that has thankfully since been closed. Paul didn’t spend a lot of time going to class in high school, but in his senior year, he spent enough time be one of the 25 percent of the seniors who graduated. He had gotten his first job, through a generous friend of mine, when he was 12. He held several other jobs in the summers, and while he was in school. He was always willing to work. He liked making money, and the people who hired him–at a drugstore, a sporting goods store–liked him. But these were part-time affairs, with unpredictable and infrequent hours. And when the recruiter came by to talk to him about a job in the Army, he was interested.
Paul recognized that he could use some discipline and focus in his life, and he thought the Army would give him a chance to prove himself. It has. But primarily, he viewed the Army as a job, a good job, his first real job, which had lots of benefits. His high school diploma was his ticket in. He entered basic training in February 2010.
When the President talks of a jobs program, or the Republicans talk of tax cuts as a way to stimulate job creation, I think about Paul and his job, and the tremendous burden his 20-year-old shoulders are bearing. Every day our political discourse deteriorates further, and while millions of people search desperately for a way to support themselves and their families, kids like Paul are going to work as war-makers. It seems to be for Paul and for so many like him, one of the only jobs we have for certain kids, from certain neighborhoods, with certain backgrounds.
A friend observed that if Paul lived underemployed in West Baltimore, he would be in more danger than in Afghanistan. I don’t believe that, but if it’s true, than shame on us for letting that kind of despair permeate our city and this great country.
So this morning, my daughter Miranda leaves for work in a nursing home in Alaska, where she’s volunteering until she goes to graduate school. And Paul settles in for his first day of a nine-month deployment in one of the most violent places on the planet. I am proud of them both. And while I know that it’s impossible for all people to have the same options in life, I wish that these two friends, who grew up together, could have options that weren’t so vastly different. I have learned so much from Paul. And today, I am learning what it means to be overwhelmingly scared. And I’ll stay that way until he gets back. When his tour is completed, he may choose to stay in the Army, and it may work out to be an excellent career. He is good at his job. And I pray that it leads to at least his having the choice of another one.
– Tom Hall