Prose, Grades 10 – 12: First Place
War Stories — Kenny Stesin
Liam [Liam is a 16-year-old boy who is troubled by the war in Afghanistan. His father is a fighter pilot and Liam worries about him. He does not wish to join the Air Force, but his two older brothers are enlisting upon graduation.]
Every day I wake up to the planes.
They roar above in the skies; like birds suddenly spreading their wings and taking flight without warning.
[He looks off into the distance] It scares me…
Yet, it’s a part of me. I can’t escape it, so I don’t try to break away anymore.
I live on Andrews Air Force Base with my mom, two brothers and my dad…when he’s home.
My brothers; they’re the poster-child American boys. They are both planning on following my dad into the skies. They see it as a call to duty; a call to bring about peace. All of them have the same view: My dad, Matt, Brad, and even my mom.
I just can’t see the world through their eyes.
My dad’s been flying for a long time. He started when he was just a kid, and has been with the Air Force for 23 years. Not much has changed since he started, but back then, when I was little, he used to be home with me to play baseball and talk about school. Now I see him once a week, but only through a computer screen, thousands of miles away.
I remember the day that he left for the first time and didn’t come back for dinner. I was only eight years old. But I remember. He said he’d be back. I thought I understood.
But two weeks passed. A month passed. And another month passed. Soon, it had been one whole year since my father was in our house; sitting at the head of the dinner table or sitting on the couch talking with his sons.
I saw him, but staring at him through a camera was just not the same. Besides, I could never focus on him. The scene taking place behind him always fixated me. The war going on behind him.
[He cringes] I’ve never seen such a scene. Behind him, a city in ruins. Tents. Fatigued warriors. Guns. Tanks. Missiles. War. That word. War. [He pauses and looks away]
My dad, he’s a lieutenant general in the United States Air Force. He only takes commands from the general above him and the general of the entire Air Force. He’s a very powerful man and appears to have very few flaws. But he has flaws. I’ve seen them.
It was the time we first used the video chatting program that I saw his flaws for the first time. My mom and I were the only ones at home.
He called and we rushed to the computer.
He was crying. He was bleeding. He was dying. He was weak.
Next to him, I saw Lt. Bradshaw, my dad’s top officer in his unit. Bradshaw was lying limp, nurses and doctors around him. Suddenly, they stopped working. They didn’t have to say anything. I knew.
I shot my glance back to my father, praying that he would not meet the same fate as his friend.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the horrific scene around him. A blazing fire, still being fed by fire bombs falling from the sky. I saw people risking their lives to put out the blaze in order to save their comrades. Courage like I’ve never seen before. Hell like I’ve never seen before.
I tried to look away as if it would stop the madness. But that madness was real. It was not going away. Only my dad’s soft words pulled me back to sanity. He said he’d be all right. And that he loved us. He said he had to go so they could bandage his wounds. I thought I understood.
We sat up all night waiting to hear back from him. At three o’clock in the morning, the computer beeped. My dad was alive. Lt. Bradshaw was not.
[Adrian has an older sister fighting in Afghanistan. Adrian is 17 and Nora, her sister, is 24. Adrian lives in San Francisco with her aunt. Her grandfather fought in Vietnam and her grandmother was a nurse in WWII. She can’t wait to enlist in the Armed Forces too. She is very envious of her sister, but she worries about her. She is obsessed with keeping up to date with all of the news about the war.]
[Frantically] I refreshed the news page. No new articles appeared. I frantically pressed the refresh button again. Nothing.
[She pauses] I have a problem: I am obsessed with following the war and my sister Nora fighting in Afghanistan. My friends at school don’t understand me. I go to Rush Creek Preparatory Academy in New York, and most of the kids there have little or no exposure to the war.
I was talking to a friend today about Nora. They asked what war she was fighting in. At first, I thought he was asking if she was stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but when I asked him if that was his question, his response was, “Adrian…we’re not at war in Afghanistan…they’re just those people who committed the acts of 9/11. Aren’t you from New York?”
I don’t understand how people can be so ignorant. The war in Afghanistan has become my reality. My life. And people don’t even realize that our soldiers, my Nora, are fighting for our freedom thousands of miles away. Just because the fighting isn’t in people’s backyards doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t care about our men and woman in uniform! Things like this frustrate me. I try to understand, but I fail every time.
I continued talking to this kid, trying to explain to him the history of the war. He simply shrugged it off and stopped paying attention to my story. He finally asked what Nora does in Afghanistan. He actually said, “Does she carry around an M-16 and shoot people?” I sighed.
I tried to explain to him that soldiers don’t just go around and shoot people, but this was to no avail. I told him that she’s a staff sergeant assigned to a tactical operations planning base in Kabul. I explained that she does not carry a gun and works mostly on the base planning operations.
The kid had the nerve to say to my face,“Well, that’s lame.”
I walked away. I walked away from him, I walked away from school and I ran home.
I did not cry. I did not complain. Instead, I watched the news. I followed the war. I e-mailed Nora. I relieved my stress. I stood strong. I was still confused about many things in life, but of one thing I was sure: I was proud of my sister, and I wanted to fight alongside of her. Just in case, I checked the age requirement on the army Web site to see if I could sign up yet. I didn’t care what other people thought, I wanted to stand Army Strong.
I could not hold back the anger. The rage. The fear. The hopelessness. I began to cry, the tears running down my face like bombs raining down from the skies; exploding outwards as they landed on my plain white shirt.
Still today, I remember the day when I saw that horrific scene play out, and still today that remains the reason why I will not enlist in the Air Force. I know that what my dad does to innocent people is exactly what happened to him and Lt. Bradshaw.
I was torn. I did not understand. I was lost. I continued to cry. But I did not care. I knew it was OK. I knew because my father cried, too. But he lived on. I was hurt. But I did not care. I knew it was OK. I knew because my father had been hurt, too. But he lived on. I live my life like my dad. Always trying to fight for peace. But I refuse to do it the shameful way my father did.
I fight with words not bombs. My arsenal is full of actions not missiles. I shoot down hate not planes. I do it all for my father. I know he would have liked to have fought like me. He just got caught up in the military. And eventually, the military caught up with him.
I am known throughout George Washington High as the kid who lives for his dad; speaks the words he could not speak, rights the wrongs he could not right. I encounter other students every day. Some are skeptical of me, some are critical, some are judgmental and some are supportive.
But I can handle it. I am strong. Just like my father. Just like my father. I do all of this for my father who was shot down from the skies two years ago.
[Tikvah, pronounced TEEK-Vaa, is a 15-year-old girl who lives in Chicago. She moved to the United States from Poland when she was seven and still speaks with a heavy accent. She is troubled by problems in the world and wants to solve them all. War is just one of the many things that bother her. Her mother is her biggest supporter. She was very close to her brother, who was killed in Iraq at only 19.]
“Just remember your name, Tikvah, just remember your name.”
I couldn’t sleep. Things, many things, troubled me. Health care reform, the economy, AIDS, poverty, civil unrest and war. Suddenly, the thoughts clouded my mind. Pictures of Aaron popped into my head. Everything swirled like a tornado; swirling faster. And faster. And faster.
My mom walked in. I stopped. I tried to keep my thoughts to myself, but it all poured out — ideas and thoughts spewing everywhere as if my head were an erupting volcano. She stroked the hair on my head and just sat there, taking in the words and breathing in and out slowly.
That’s when she said it. “Just remember your name, Tikvah, just remember your name.”
She said goodnight, turned off the lamp next to my bed and closed the door on her way out.
I lay awake, staring at the infinite number of dots in the ceiling. I felt better, but I still didn’t want to sleep.
[She pauses] Tikvah. Hope. It will be all right. Stand strong.
[She pauses again] My English is very poor, so my mother homeschools me. We have to do math and science in Polish but I try some other subjects in English. I don’t talk to many people outside the house. Well, I talk to Nadia, my Russian neighbor, but she’s three years younger than me.
My mom worries that I’m lonely. I am. But I have my thoughts to keep me busy. And I have my future planned out, so I don’t need to worry.
[She cringes, a tear rolls down her face as she sits up in bed] Oh, Aaron. My father, he sees me planning and he asks me about it. He asks why, why am I planning my life at such a young age?
For Aaron. I plan for Aaron. I plan so I can stop Aaron’s murderer. I plan because Aaron couldn’t. I plan so Aaron isn’t forgotten. I was nine when he died…when he was killed. We had been living in Chicago just six months when Aaron came home with a shaven head and draped in a military uniform. He sat down with my parents, both wide-eyed in shock and disbelief. I hugged the wall, trying to hear their conversation. All I could see was the back of Aaron’s neck and the metal wire sitting against it, shimmering in the sunlight.
He took a deep breath, and he told them: “This country, it has given us so much. Freedom. Peace. Hope. I must go now to defend our new homeland.”
I smiled. I was so proud of my brother. I was so, so proud. But I was scared for him.
It was hard to say goodbye, but we did. We heard from Aaron every so often, exchanging e-mails from thousands of miles away, but we did not see him for seven months. In fact, we never saw my brother Aaron again.
[She holds back tears] It was a cool August afternoon the day they came. My mother answered their heavy knocks. Two men in army uniforms were behind the thick door. I hugged the same wall once more. I could not hear or understand these men, but I understood. The shimmer said enough as Aaron’s dog tag necklace was placed in my mother’s hands.
I was completely devastated. I was young, but I understood.
So I did what I could. I read. And I read more. I educated myself so that I could understand where my brother went, why he was killed, why he was murdered.
[She lies back down] I understand now.
I understand about war and I understand about Iraq.
And I educate others now.
I talk to people in my neighborhood.
I march with antiwar activists. I support those who promote peace.
And I wear Aaron’s dog tags to keep me going.
I took a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Aaron reappeared in my mind.
I smiled and closed my eyes, for I knew that my mother was right…there really was hope…hope for peace.