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The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.

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