School shares little with spotlighted neighbor

Cresaptown: A career and technical center connects with the military but not so much with the unit tied to reports of Iraqi prisoner abuse.

May 06, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

CRESAPTOWN -From the hilly parking lot of his small-town high school, Joseph Chesterfield can look across the highway and size up his future.

The silver razor-wire of the Western Correctional Institution beckons for many of his friends, but the 17-year-old said that guarding inmates isn't his style. The pizza place down the road is a possibility, if it would only hire him.

But Chesterfield also can see the 372nd Military Police Company headquarters, the squat, brick building where he briefly trained with the Young Marines as a boy. And though he says he wouldn't want to join the Army Reserve company, he sees the military as his ticket out of a town where the good jobs seem all but gone.

"It's either the military, or move out of Cumberland, because there ain't too much you can do around here," he said.

Though it sits across the road from the 372nd headquarters, the Center for Career and Technical Education shares little more than a parking lot with the MP company that became known around the world after several of its soldiers were accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners.

Teachers at the school, which draws 322 students from the area's four high schools to study several trades, can't remember the last time a student trained over there, or name any graduates who are attached to the unit.

The school's connection to the military as a whole is far more solid.

History teacher Jim Schmidt, a Vietnam veteran, takes the "cosmetology girls" to a Martinsburg, W.Va., hospital every Veterans Day to pass out cards.

Two years ago, he organized the school's "Operation Love Pack" to send packages to Afghanistan.

Last year, under Operation Shoebox, the school sent dozens of boxes filled with deodorant, flea collars (to keep bugs away while sleeping) and phone cards to soldiers in Iraq.

For five years, teacher Richard King has run the Military Club, where students practice marching drills and learn to navigate using maps and compasses.

It used to be called the Army Club, and every Friday an Army recruiter trained the 40 or so students who signed up. But after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, King said, the recruiters stopped coming regularly.

Eventually, the club's name changed.

Every year, King says, a "handful" of students enlist. Several have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pvt. Brandon L. Davis, 20, a 2001 graduate of Fort Hill High School who took classes at the center, was killed in March when a bomb exploded under a vehicle near Fallujah, Iraq. The school immediately placed a tribute to him on the marquee, and many teachers call him a hero.

Even students who see options beyond military service aren't ruling it out.

Vicki Light, 16, a Military Club member, hopes to become an apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where she can earn about $25 an hour, according to her teacher, Ed Taylor.

Navy a possibility

If she is not accepted, Light said, she will consider joining the Navy, where her electrical skills might allow her to come in as an officer.

"After my education, I doubt I'll stay here," Light said. "I'm not one of the ones who's afraid of leaving."

Senior Aaron Ranker, 17, is also hoping that an apprenticeship will come through for him, and said he might think about enlisting if it doesn't. Like Light and Chesterfield, Ranker could only count on his mother as the family provider growing up. She works at a convenience store in Cumberland. To help make ends meet, he works there, too - in addition to his job at Blockbuster Video and occasional work for an electrical contractor.

Ranker said he would not look askance at a military career because of the actions of a few soldiers.

But some of his teachers are not so sure that everyone sees it that way.


"I'm really embarrassed," confided Taylor, after most of his students had moved on to their next class. He worries that the misdeeds of a few soldiers could overshadow the accomplishments of local heroes like Brandon Davis.

Schmidt, the Vietnam veteran, shares that fear, and he has talked about the accusations leveled against the 372nd with his history classes.

"You only need one little incident to tar everyone that's over there with the same paint brush," he said. "You just don't do that kind of stuff, not if you're trying to win hearts and minds, to borrow a phrase from Vietnam."

The center's students don't seem to be talking openly about their across-the-street neighbor's involvement in the Abu Ghraib prison incidents, but several said privately that they were outraged.

It's hard to ignore the signs that their little town is embedded in the headlines.

Much activity

Last week, while King was coaching a baseball game, a helicopter carrying a high-ranking military official landed nearby. There are microphones outside the barracks-like office building, and occasionally a satellite television truck camps there.

But the center's principal, Deborah Bittinger, prefers not to focus on the reason the 372nd is in the news and would rather think about the good that they have done when she drives past the MP company's headquarters on her way to work.

"Every day, when I come and go, I remember how lucky I am to live here," Bittinger said, "and that these young people are out there, fighting for us, right now."

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