Best Defense

We Were Students Once … and Young: A Tribute to a Military-Heavy Public School

DoD families have much to offer American public schools.

Brian Jones, of Orange High School ROTC, holds an American flag on color guard duty during a Veterans Day observance Nov. 11, 2002 in Orange, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Brian Jones, of Orange High School ROTC, holds an American flag on color guard duty during a Veterans Day observance Nov. 11, 2002 in Orange, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)


By Matt Collins
Best Defense guest columnist

Recently, the Trump administration announced it was considering closing 47 schools run by the Department of Defense in the United States. This divestiture would require the children of service members to attend the public schools in their area. The proposal caused an uproar in military family communities. Having grown up next to a military base and attended a public school that was roughly half DoD students, I would offer a few observations.

Educating DoD students was a fiscal boon for my tiny school system. Skipping a few layers of bureaucracy meant it received outsized benefits directly from DoD. This gave us great facilities, swanky sports programs, and solid academic offerings. Not all school systems would offer an AP calculus course for the four of us who signed up my senior year. A portion of the faculty were military spouses who rotated in and out with the military students. The superintendent was a veteran himself and made sure that everyone from the top down appreciated the unique challenges of service-member families. And, as a former enlisted man, he did not care one whit about any parent’s rank or lack thereof.

It was a wonderful experience for the civilian students. My hometown was an impoverished area where generations lived and died not far from where their parents and grandparents had. While few of us held passports, our military classmates had been posted all over. We lived vicariously through their adventures abroad and got a peek at the world beyond our little community.

While many of the school districts in our area were, to put it gently, monochromatic, the base kids were a diverse lot. I have sometimes described my high school football experience as Remember the Titans but in the 1990s: We’d play in rough areas where the police would escort us out of town after the game; several of our opponents chose the rebels as their mascot and we’d share the uncomfortable moment when their band played “Dixie” around our African-American teammates.

The DoD students benefited from the experience as well. They were exposed to life outside of the gated community that most bases resemble. Kids from the city and suburbs saw people who lived in trailer parks and eked out an existence working on farms or in factories. They saw people who lived in big houses and drove nice cars who weren’t officers. The base was part of the fabric of life in the community as much as the community was part of the base.

The local Boy Scout troop suffered from an embarrassment of riches. Before a policy change by the DoD, units could sponsor organizations like my troop. This allowed us to check out vehicles from the motor pool, meet on base housing, and raise funds on post. We sold Christmas trees in the winter and ran a miniature golf course in the summer, helping us buy new tents and camp stoves while some of our scouts could barely afford hiking boots. Base doctors taught us first aid. Graduates of the military’s survival schools taught us how to find clean water in the mountains and snare game to eat. We churned out Eagle Scouts, service-academy appointments, and ROTC scholarships like Ohio State produces NFL players.

Every fall, we did our best to welcome the new crop of classmates, knowing the heartbreak that would follow when they left in three years. We shared their anxiety when their fathers left for Desert Storm. We shared their adulation when they returned. And we mourned with those whose fathers did not come back. Through it all, we made lifelong friends with those military brats. Many followed their parents into the family business, enlisting after high school. Some of us did the same, knowing the toll it would take on our families.

While the initiative to close those DoD schools has merit, it may not come to pass. The current administration sometimes mirrors the public’s uncritical adulation of the military. It is likely the defense establishment will get its way and its families will remain cloistered in their planned communities, experiencing a simulacrum of the American experience, devoid of recessions or debates about health care. And, with the mounting cost of health care, education, and other family support programs, it is an expensive simulacrum to maintain. It is a pity, though. We learned so much from each other.

Matt Collins attended a public school with military dependent students in one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in country. He is an Eagle Scout and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent 10 years as a Marine intelligence officer, with service in the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company, the British Army, and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He now works for a leading defense technology firm and is a graduate student at Georgetown University. Opinions expressed are his own.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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