Washington Heights 11th Graders ask: How does a foreign war affect communities at home?

Patricia McCormick's Purple Heart

Patricia McCormick’s Purple Heart

Yesterday, the 11th graders participating in our Investigative Journalism Program welcomed Gulf War vet Omar Merino and gold-star mom Emily Toro. The two guests came to speak to Mr. Dickhudt’s classes and give perspective to the books the students are reading about the Iraq war: Patricia McCormick’s novel Purple Heart and investigative journalist Dexter Filkins’ The Forever Wara nonfiction account of the ongoing middle east conflict. The students are writing non-fiction accounts of how foreign wars affect life at home and will be incorporating Emily and Omar’s experiences into their articles.

Omar and Emily listen to a student's question

Omar and Emily listen to a student’s question

Emily explained that she became a gold-star mom when her son, Pvt. Isaac T. Cortes, was killed in action in November of 2007. Isaac had initially joined the Army because he wanted to become a police officer, but his tour was cut tragically short after only 10 months.

Emily passed around her gold star lapel pin; a small gold star ringed in laurel on a purple background, symbolizing the purple heart that her son was awarded. She spoke candidly about her son’s life (“he was stubborn”, “he loved kids”) and of her pain after he was killed (“I was still waiting by the phone hoping he would call”). Encouraged by another gold star parent, Emily eventually learned to come to terms with her son’s death and now helps other parents dealing with loss and advocates for veterans and their families.

Emily's pins, with the gold star in the center

Emily’s pins, with the gold star in the center

Omar recounted the story of how he came to serve: as a 17-year-old high school drop out in Miami, involved with gangs, he was confronted by a reporter doing a story who asked “what will you be doing this time next year?” He responded that he would be in the Army, and the next thing he knew a recruiter was knocking on his door.

Omar served 4 years in Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm; his specialty was repair and maintenance of the tank’s weapons system. Unfortunately, those skills didn’t translate well to civilian life. When asked whether he sustained any injuries from the war, he replied, “Fear and anger.  Those were the scars that were left on me.”  He went on to described the sense of isolation and detachment he felt when he returned home,  and the years it took for him to confront what had been seething inside.

“Google this, he told students, there are more deaths from suicides than there are deaths from combat.”

The students asked questions of both speakers, circling around the notion of re-entry and its meaning. An emotional day, but another incredible opportunity to bring real meaning to the printed word. Next week, students will be working with NY Times writer Ray Rivera, who spent a year covering the war in Afghanistan.

We are so grateful for Omar and Emily’s honesty and openness with our students and we are humbled by their service and sacrifice.