The troops returning from Afghanistan this year face a bleak homecoming: the nation’s commitment to their families is flagging–particularly at the broken-down schools that serve soldiers’ kids.
For nearly half her life, 11-year-old Catie Hunter has lived apart from her father, an Army platoon sergeant deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and twice to Korea. Such extended separation would stress any child. But Catie must endure additional hardship at her elementary school at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill.
To get to class on stormy days, the fifth grader must dodge what she calls “Niagara Falls,” the deluge of rainwater that flows from the school’s rotten roof into large trash bins below. Pleasant days aren’t much better at Geronimo Road Elementary. Catie passes by chipped floors, termite-infested walls, and cracks in bricks the size of the principal’s finger. In the ceiling, tiles are bent and browned by leaks. Some dangle by threads of glue. A bucket, strapped by a bungee cord, hangs over the gymnasium door, another makeshift rain receptacle. Inside her classroom—built before Dwight D. Eisenhower became president—an archaic air-conditioning unit at times drowns out her teacher’s voice.
“I’m really proud of the fact that the school is still standing,” says Catie, a pixie of a girl who twitches her nose when she talks. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s going to fall in.”
School conditions that disgust many adults only add to the pressures on a child longing for a father deployed four times since her birth. “I wish he were here,” she admits. “I miss him a lot.”
Catie’s circumstances are hardly unique. An investigation by NEWSWEEK and the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatchNews found that tens of thousands of children of U.S. military personnel attend military-base schools that are falling apart from age and neglect, and have failed to meet the Defense Department’s own standards. The conditions at schools on military installations have worsened in the last decade even as the average soldier-parent endures an average of three deployments, each lasting up to 18 months.