Story by Liz Bravacos and Meghan Morris
One of them, a former captain in the Marine Corps, has thrown grenades, ridden in tanks and blown up plastic explosives. Now, as a teacher, she roars out a sudden, booming “oo-rah” that raises her students’ slumping heads instantly.
Another, a sophomore at West Point, listens intently as President Obama outlines his plan to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The cadet finds security in his future—a future that, as of now, looks like war.
A third, a senior and soon-to-be cadet, contemplates the road that lies ahead. After graduation, while his classmates race off to college and independence, he will choose to live a structured, regimented life at West Point Academy.
The experiences of these three individuals reflect various stages of life in the military. As the beginnings of reinforcements deploy to Afghanistan, The Spoke takes a look at the evolution of a soldier, represented by those in the Conestoga community: the high school student, the college cadet, the active-duty officer and the veteran. Though in different stages, all are united by their military service: an unconditional promise to fight for freedom.
Fighting the enemy
TV studio aide Art Phillips knows the experiences of war firsthand—he served in Vietnam for a year, from 1970-71.
Phillips’ decision to serve was directly influenced by his brother, who, at the time, had a family at home in America and was working in a dangerous combat zone abroad. Phillips said that he decided to send his brother home to his family, and the siblings switched places—his brother came back to the United States, and Phillips went over to Vietnam.
Phillips served on a riverboat near the Cambodian border where he helped train the Vietnamese army.
“I grew up quick—I became mature fast,” Phillips said. “It was a lesson in maturity, because I cared for a band of brothers and I learned teamwork.”
Throughout his service, Phillips said that he maintained his determination by focusing on his patriotism and, on the whole, has no regrets about the experience.
“The knowledge that I did it for my country got me through, because without each one of us it would have been more of a mess,” Phillips said.
Phillips said that he struggled most with the lack of technology for correspondence with his relatives. He could only reach the United States by mail because there were few phone lines in the brush.
Since that time, however, the means of communication between soldiers stationed overseas and their families at home have improved.
Jason Murray, a 1999 Conestoga graduate currently stationed at the Forward Operating Base in Gardez, Afghanistan, contacts family and friends through the Internet. Murray said that he often thinks of his wife and daughter as he patrols old ruins in the desert.
“I want to keep going to protect them,” Murray said. “If I’m not here fighting for them, then the chances of the enemy coming to the U.S. are greater. I would rather keep it on their homefront than on ours.”
Murray joined the Army shortly after graduating from Conestoga. As a military police officer, he helps train the Afghan police force to protect the citizens of local towns from dangerous radicals.
Murray often faces weapons and violence during his missions, a consequence of a job that social studies teacher Debra Ciamacca, a former captain in the Marine Corps, said she understands well. However, Ciamacca cautions students about the dangers of war.
“I don’t necessarily want students to go over to Afghanistan and get shot at, but I honestly think that if you decide it’s right for you, it’s one of the best experiences you could ever have,” Ciamacca said.
Ciamacca spent four years of active duty service after completing a Naval ROTC course at Penn State.
She worked as an adjutant in Camp Pendleton, Calif., where she oversaw about 300 guards for the Marines correctional facility. There, Ciamacca learned, among other things, her signature “oo-rah” yell, which she occasionally utilizes in the classroom to command students’ attention.
During her time in the Marines, Ciamacca experienced a full array of military training.
“I rode in tanks, flew in the backseat of a helicopter with my feet dangling in the air, threw grenades. I was an expert on the M-16 rifle; I was a sharpshooter with the .45-caliber pistol. I got to shoot a grenade launcher,” Ciamacca said. “Probably the coolest thing I did was blowing up stuff—plastic explosives— like in the movies.”
Ciamacca said that she draws from her experience with the Marines in an effort to teach students about the sacrifices soldiers make during war.
Joe Cash, a 2008 ’Stoga graduate, knows those sacrifices. Cash joined the Navy after realizing that he did not have the financial resources to study photography in college.
Cash trained and became a 8404 corpsman, a medical position in which he treats wounded soldiers during combat. His training has also prepared him to work with the Marines if he is deployed to a war zone.
“It’s not all fun and games. It’s just like any other job. We’re just normal people,” Cash said. “We have a different mindset about certain things, and we probably get paid less than a lot of people out in the civilian world. But we also get a lot of major benefits, so it balances itself out.”
One such benefit, in Cash’s view, is that the Navy will pay for his education after his years of service.
First, however, he faces deployment to Afghanistan within the coming weeks. While his time overseas will be challening, Cash said that he is looking forward to the opportunity to use his training in action.
Gearing up for battle
While the prospect of deployment may deter some from the military, senior Tyler Mazda is unfazed by his future of active service after he graduates from military school. Mazda received a letter of assurance from West Point Academy in early December, a school with which he felt an immediate connection after a visit in fourth grade.
“I could never see myself in a regular job, pushing papers in an office—that would be incredibly boring—whereas the military is so exciting,” Mazda said. “I want to do something for my country.”
Since his freshman year, Mazda has been involved with the Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer Air Force unit that protects and aids U.S. citizens. Mazda is part of the cadet program, which trains high school students to be future military leaders.
Mazda’s commitment to West Point signifies his start in the military. He said he is not concerned about the five years of post-graduation service it will require, and is undaunted by the dangers of combat.
“I wouldn’t join if I didn’t want to fight, so I’ll do whatever they want me to do,” he said.
Freddy Heitjan, a 2008 Conestoga graduate and sophomore at West Point, received the call of duty when President Obama came to the academy to address the nation on Dec. 1. Heitjan was one of 4,000 gray-uniformed cadets in the audience when Obama rolled out his plan to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
“It was a big deal to see all of these people, who are some of the most important people in the United States government, sitting shoulder to shoulder with cadets,” Heitjan said.
Heitjan said that he was interested to hear Obama talk about the future, because that future applies specifically to him. Heitjan applied to West Point because he wanted to gain leadership and fulfill his civic duty. He said that he is prepared to take on responsibility and defend his nation.
At a different service academy, 2009 Conestoga graduate Mike Ackerman is preparing for a future in the military as well. Ackerman is a freshman at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, N.Y. He said that he joined the academy for the structured lifestyle and job security.
“I wanted to do something different. A lot of people I knew were going to liberal arts schools and that just wasn’t for me,” Ackerman said. “I think it’s a different experience than everyone else gets and, at the end of the day, I’m getting a job after graduation.”
Ackerman is majoring in business and will be on the seas in June to get more realistic sailing experience. He said that, although the Merchant Marines do not actually fight, their job is just as important in the nation’s defense because they supply troops with weapons and equipment.
Although Ackerman chose a military academy after completing high school, other ’Stoga graduates have committed to the military by joining ROTC programs in which they train with the armed forces but attend non-academy schools.
Taylor Perkins, a 2009 Conestoga graduate, is a member of the Army ROTC at Marshall University in West Virginia. He hopes to participate in active service after graduation.
Service to the country can come in various forms, Perkins said. He thinks that there is a common misconception among high school students that, by joining the army, they must fight in active-duty combat.
“There are so many different things you can do in the military besides going around and shooting people,” Perkins said. “There are a lot more opportunities out there than just being on the front line.”
Beyond the front lines
Social studies teacher Tim Decker also served overseas, though he was not stationed in a combat zone. Decker was a yeoman, or desk clerk, in the Navy from 1984-89, during which time he sailed on three six-month Pacific cruises.
After graduating from high school, Decker lacked a clear plan for his future, and thus decided to enlist in the Navy. He said that, while his service in the military was a positive personal experience, he is hesitant to advertise the military as a post-graduation option to students, in light of the current situation in the Middle East.
“Since the Iraq war, I have not recommended anyone for the military. I’ve begun to discourage it only if they talk about it. I tell them the truth, what to expect,” Decker said. “There was a time before the Iraq war when I might encourage people, but now I don’t want anyone going into Iraq.”
Back in her classroom, Ciamacca reflects on the lessons learned from her years in the Marine Corps that still influence her character today. She tries to impress these values upon her students, values that include respect, persistence and, of course, her signature “ooo-rah” yell.
“When you’re a leader, you set the example, so if you ask someone to do something, it can’t be something you aren’t willing to do yourself,” Ciamacca said. “Excellence—always doing your best at all times—is one of the hallmarks of the military. Finally, never give up.”
Editor’s note: The Spoke would also like to recognize staff members Robert DeSipio, Lee Huzzard, Keith Nunnelee and Mark Tirone for their service in the U.S. armed forces.
Liz Bravacos can be reached at email@example.com.
This article appeared originally on pages 1, 4 and 5 of The Spoke’s Jan. 12, 2010 edition.