By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 12, 2008 - Freedom Walks, special bulletin board displays and moments of silence marked the seventh anniversary of 9/11 at Department of Defense Dependents Schools around the world. While the observances might not have been much different from those at many other American elementary, middle and high schools, the students involved and their perspectives were anything but typical.
The 192 schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity serve more than 84,000 children of military servicemembers and Defense Department civilian employees in 12 foreign countries, seven states, Guam and Puerto Rico.
So to many of the students, the 9/11 attacks aren't ancient history they can barely remember or hadn't yet been born to live through. They were that single event that changed the military forces their parents serve in, and as a result, had a direct impact on their lives. Many have watched their parents and loved ones go off to war in response, sometimes repeatedly.
DoDDS students on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, home of the 18th Wing and the hub of U.S. airpower in the Pacific, have felt the impact of this high-deployment tempo deeply.
Recognizing this, Chris Riley, a 5th grade teacher at Stearley Heights Elementary School on Kadena Air Base, used the 9/11 anniversary as an opportunity to reinforce his American history lessons, along with the military's role in defending constitutional rights and freedoms.
"We talked about the people who lost their lives in 9/11 and how that has changed all of our lives," he said. "We listed the brave people – police, firemen, [emergency medical services], construction workers and ordinary people – who responded and sacrificed in the aftermath."
A bulletin board in the school library featured newspapers screaming the news: "Attack on America," and "Plane Crashes Into Pentagon."
But beyond limiting his classroom discussions to the attacks themselves, Riley went on to talk about how 9/11 and the war on terror had affected them personally. The students talked about the increased fear of going off base or traveling abroad, he said. One even expressed concerns that a terrorist might destroy his home.
"The majority, however, said that parents and other loved ones were away on deployments, that they missed them, that they were sad [and] afraid when they were away," Riley said.
Charles Toth, DoDEA's assistant associate director for education in Washington, has seen up close and personal the ups and downs military children face during deployments. He was the principal at Wurzburg High School in Germany when the 1st Infantry Division deployed in the mid-1990s for duty in Kosovo and Bosnia, then again when its troops formed part of the invasion force into Iraq in 2003. Later, as principal at Frankfurt High School, he helped his students through another major deployment.
"There's always that anxiety and that fear of the unknown that students deal with," Toth said. "I've lived in some communities where the deployments of battalions have become very, very emotional events.
"But our kids are very resilient," he said, crediting a huge family-support network that permeates military programs to help families through the challenges of 9/11 deployments. The DoDEA schools, he said, play a key role with an array of programs, services and activities.
At Kadena Air Base, Riley and other teachers used a Freedom Walk to engage the students in the base's 9/11 commemorations. The Freedom Walk was among 330 similar processions in all 50 states and 12 foreign countries.
Riley's class chose an ambitious route, walking past all five other base schools – Bob Hope Primary School, Amelia Earhart Intermediate School, Ryukyu Middle School, Kadena Middle School and Kadena High School. "It was long and difficult, but we planned it that way to commemorate the trails and hardships our military endures," Riley said.
Not surprisingly, the students found ways to entertain themselves along the way. "Students were enthusiastic, and soon created their own chants, like 'Honk for Freedom, Freedom Rocks!' and 'Let's Go Freedom, Let's Go!'" Riley said. Many of the drivers who passed by waved, honked or cheered the students on.
During its walk, the class encountered a larger group of 6th grade students from Ryukyi Middle School conducting their own Freedom Walk. "It was great, because we were chanting 'Freedom Rocks' and they were chanting 'USA,'" Riley said. "We met and there was Freedom Walk pandemonium."
As they reached the far point of their route, the students talked about the sacrifices so many Americans make, serving their country far from home. "We bolstered our strength and we marched back," he said.
When they arrived back at their school, the tired students declared it one of the best field trips they've ever had. But Riley said the lessons instilled that day went deeper.
"We learned we can never take our freedoms for granted, and we cannot give up the fight," he said.