It is 2005, in Iraq. A Humvee rolls cautiously through the desert, wheels kicking up ghostly puffs of sand. All is silent, save for the low murmur of engines and the shallow breathing of American soldiers. Other vehicles dot the sparse landscape, all moving in sunlit lethargy, lurching forward as if regretting they had even come.
The boom of the explosion seemed to rip through the fabric of sound itself. A land mine — the only one hit that day. One man in the passenger seat of the Humvee took the brunt of the blow: shattered knees, shrapnel through his legs, and later, a Purple Heart for Senior Chief Scott Stearns.
Back at home in San Diego, Stearns’ oldest son Thomas Stearns (12), just 7 years old, rides in the back seat of the car, perhaps off to school, or sports practice, or a friend’s house. On the way, they jolt over a pothole, a speed bump. The last thing Stearns would have thought of as they continue on their way are the bombs exploding beneath moving tires, halfway across the world.
“No one died from that Humvee, but it was a really close call,” Stearns said. “And it was a really bad accident, and it’s very, very lucky that he’s alive. After that happened, I was just really worried about him being in the military for the years to follow. It was a wake-up call.”
According to a 2015 San Diego Military Advisory Council study, there are more than 100,000 active duty Navy and Marine Corp. members based in San Diego Co. Military spending in San Diego Co. generates 328,000 jobs in the county, 22 percent of total employment available.
But despite the significant military influence in the area, many TPHS students, even those with parents active in the military, have grown up sheltered from the brutalities of war.
“I would get very nervous every time he would get deployed after [his accident], so sometimes he wouldn’t tell me,” Stearns said. “When he went to Afghanistan, I didn’t know. He told me he was going to Virginia, or something like that, because … it was supposed to be a very dangerous deployment, and he didn’t want me or my brothers to be worried.”
Stearns’ father, who served as a U.S. Navy SEAL for 21 years, is now retired. Multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines sometimes lasted six to nine months, Stearns said. He has lived in San Diego his whole life as a result of his dad’s job here.
San Diego has also always been Maddie Ley’s (12) home, and her father, still on active duty, has been in the Marine Corps for 21 years, with six or seven deployments to Afghanistan, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. Her mother served four years in the Marine Corps as well.
“Growing up, my parents actually kept me in the dark about a lot of stuff; they would tell me that [my dad] was in the middle of a desert somewhere,” Ley said. “Now that my dad doesn’t really deploy anymore, I found out that they’ve had terrorists break on to base, things like that that I didn’t know about when I was a kid.”
Eight years old, Ley watched the kids in her class play soldier, skidding on their heels over the hot black pavement, shooting imaginary bullets out of their fingertips and dropping dead on the ground on searing summer evenings. It reminded her of something, but soon the thought was gone, and she joined her friends, laughing into the warm air.
“I already had a hard enough time not seeing my dad a lot, but then I don’t think I would’ve been able to, as an 8-year-old, have [heard], ‘Oh, your dad shot some people today,’” Ley said. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull through that.”
Stearns and Ley were both born and raised locally — close to TPHS. But Zoe Lowther (11) was born in Bremerton, Wash., because her mother, Joell Lowther, was stationed there as a Navy nurse at the time. Since then, they have moved to Carlsbad, Oceanside and San Marcos, and then to Whidbey Island, WA. When she was 12, Zoe and her family came back to San Marcos and, when her mother retired, moved to San Diego in 2011.
“I was super sad the first time that my mom went on the USNS Mercy, because that was the first time she had gone on deployment while I was [alive],” Zoe said. “[When] she came back, she promised me that she was never going to leave again. And, however many years later, she [told me], ‘I’m getting deployed to Afghanistan.’ I was bawling; it was the saddest moment because that’s even more dangerous.”
During her career, Joell Lowther was deployed three times: Operation Desert Storm in 1990, to Indonesia and neighboring countries during the tsunami disaster of 2005, and Afghanistan in 2010.
“It’s tough going, and it’s tough being there, being deployed in the combat zone,” the elder Lowther said. “And then it’s also tough coming back, because things change while you’re away, and people have coping mechanisms and make adjustments while you’re gone. So when you’re back, things have to shift again.”
One night in Afghanistan, Lowther and other nurses heard weapons discharging nearby. They huddled in their tent, terrified for their lives, crying. The explosives kept going off, and they could not tell if the shots were incoming or outgoing or when they would stop.
“We all thought we were going to die,” Lowther said. “It was very loud and scary, and it’s just a different reality when you think you have seconds left and that’s it.”
Zoe, eleven years old, sits at home on the computer with her father, waiting for her mother to answer, so that she could see her and talk during their weekly Skype call. No one picks up this time. Perhaps she is just busy, nothing to worry about, try again later.
“It would be the most hilarious thing t
rying to talk to her, because [Skype] would freeze her face,” Zoe said. “Me and my dad would Print Screen the screen. We had this collection of all these hilarious screenshots when we were video chatting her.”
According to the SDMAC study, there are 60,000 retired military and civilian employees living in San Diego, 74 percent of whom are from the Navy. The Marines make up 14 percent, and Army and Air Force personnel account for 6 percent each.
“It’s not as big a deal around here to know someone who [has a] family [member] in the military, it’s a very common thing,” Ley said. “But also, a lot of people don’t know what it’s like to have parents in the military. They recognize that a lot of people are, but they don’t really know what it means. They’re just like, ‘Oh, cool,’ but they have no idea.”
Isabella Tessitore (12) has lived “two extremes” in terms of military culture. Her father, Frank Tessitore, is a retired Marine who served for 20 years, originally working in Fort Lauderdale when she was first born. After a move to Maryland, he was stationed to San Diego when Isabella was in first grade, and the whole family followed.
“You’d think that [military membership would be prevalent at TPHS] because we have such a big base here, but there’s really not a lot of military families,” Isabella said. “But my best friend lives out on the East Coast, and it’s super military-oriented, everybody knows each other. I would go back every summer to a super small town [in Maryland]. Everybody knows, ‘Oh, Cheryl’s husband is deployed, let’s have her over on Sunday’ — that kind of thing. We don’t really get that support out here a lot.”
War changed Isabella’s father — she said he has “never really been the same” since his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, and even more so while he was dealing with it.
“He would be driving, and … instead of seeing a bush on the side, he would see a bomb,” Tessitore said. “He’d see an IED over there or helicopters in the sky. He would get these episodes of just panic, and he wouldn’t leave the house sometimes. And other times he’d be super fine, super sociable, but then he’d fall into a sulk, so it was hard to see him that way.”
According to Frank Tessitore, the experiences he lived through in Iraq and Afghanistan became his reality; soldiers do not have to drive, worry about paying bills, and other simple things that “happen in the regular society.”
“Living in Carmel Valley, it’s already not a very [realistic] life, so … [everything] becomes even more unreal,” Frank said. “Every time that I came back, it would be difficult for me to see things like people just going about their own business, not really concerned about what’s going on with the world.”
On her ninth birthday, Tessitore was surrounded by friends and family at the table, a cake in front of her, twinkling with nine slowly melting candles like miniature sticks of dynamite. Neatly wrapped gifts piled in the corner of the room, stacked half-heartedly like the bricks of a hastily-built barricade. Everyone was there, singing, laughing, celebrating another year of life, except her dad.
“A lot of sacrifice going on, sacrificing birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and sometimes summer,” Isabella Tessitore said. “A lot of birthdays. But he always came home. We were lucky. I could’ve had it way worse.”
Tessitore’s dad went on two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, some for 10 months at a time. Yet when her father came back, he experienced the effects of PTSD and “went a little crazy for a while,” which contributed to Tessitore’s parents eventually splitting up.
“We know the reality on the ground when we are [in deployment], we know what’s going on, we know what we do, we know the fight that we fight and who we’re fighting,” Frank Tessitore said, “We know who we are defending — we are defending the people who are defenseless. And when you come back returning from this, and you come to another side of the spectrum, … the disconnection is too much. We become very isolated, and … it makes us want to go back to continue to [fight for our values].”
According to Isabella, when family friends and the community heard about her parents’ divorce, they “gave [them their] space and kind of pushed [them] away.”
“If we lived on base, it would be different,” Tessitore said. “We would have a lot more support from our friends, and, of course, we’d have a whole different group of friends.”
Because Carmel Valley, TPHS especially, is an “upper-income area,” which is “not the Marine Corps at all,” students and families are often oblivious to and unfamiliar with military life, Ley said.
TPHS physics teacher and retired Navy veteran of 20 years, Dave Fleischman, said that San Diego is generally supportive of the military and very sympathetic to individuals employed by the military. But there are certain communities in San Diego with more active duty and retired military members that are more “in-tune with the military lifestyle.”
“I see very few military kids come through my class,” Fleischman said. “Economically, I think it’s probably tough for most military families to afford housing in TP’s drawing area. Plus, those neighborhoods are fairly far from bases in San Diego and Oceanside. For a lot of my students, I’m the first military person they’ve ever met.”
The military offers another aspect of education and life experience that affects not only veterans, but also everyone around them.
“[My dad] does it because he’s defending our country, and he does it to support our family,” Stearns said. “If he wasn’t in the military, he would only want to be around us. It’s taught me to love my family, appreciate what I have, especially with him being deployed, there’s that chance that he might not come home.”
According to Fleischman, the military taught him the importance of service and teamwork above self, hard work, and “what’s really important in life.” It taught him “how to make decisions” and about the “indescribable bond of shipmates.”
“TPHS students who can project beyond the next year or two — it’s tough at age 18 — can take advantage of the many opportunities that the military offers,” Fleischman said. “Often, high school students think, ‘Wow, four years of school plus five years of service is just too much of a commitment.’ In reality, that commitment ends at about age 27, and the student has had tremendous experiences in those nine years.”
For Tessitore, dealing with her father on active duty has taught her to be resilient, accepting and understanding.
“You’ll go through tough times and people will ask you tough questions, and sometimes it gets emotional,” Tessitore said. “When I know someone whose parent is … going away for a business trip for a month [for example], I’m always there. Maybe sometimes that person wasn’t there for me, but I’m always there for that person. It’s not about revenge, you know, that kind of thing. It’s just being there for the other person, I’ve learned — stay strong and try to find the positive side to things.”
It is 2005, in San Diego. Stearns waits at the airport with his family, shifting from his heels to his toes. Any moment now his father could arrive back from Afghanistan. Perhaps on crutches, or in a wheelchair, or perfectly fine, but still here. He waits and waits.
Soldiers start streaming out of the hallway, dragging suitcases and carrying bags. As soon as Stearns sees his dad, he rushes forward, his small 7-year-old frame carrying him faster than any fighter plane through the sky or any bullets whistling toward enemies. Out of the corner of his eye, Stearns sees the glint of a purple medal on his father’s uniform, but soon he finds himself in his father’s arms and forgets about the nine months and 8,000 miles between them.