Marines' Children Struggle at School With Parents at War

Stuart Mesa Elementary looks like any other school in America, except for its location.

It sits behind the guarded walls of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base to serve the children of Marines, many of whom are fighting their way to Baghdad.

"We're in the military. Our parents are in Iraq," says 11-year-old Ryan Verhagen.

These days, life for the 700 students at Stuart Mesa is framed by the wartime regimen of life at the home base of 31,000 Marines, which is seeing a growing number killed or missing in action in Iraq.

Flags fly at half staff. Marines wielding shotguns stand guard at the base's entrance. Helicopters thunder overhead. Every few weeks, more troops hug their children goodbye and begin a journey that might lead to Iraq.

The constant reminders are too much for 10-year-old Aylah Wood.

"I still feel like a target," Aylah said between classes on the playground at Stuart Mesa.

Several of her classmates nodded in agreement.

"I used to feel like a target here, but ever since the war started I feel safe because we've been kicking their butts," said 10-year-old Payton Lueken, whose father is a warrant officer getting ready to deploy overseas.

Payton said he uses his brother's plastic Army men to show the Marines beating the Iraqi forces.

The school serves the children of enlisted Marines, who are deployed more often than senior officers, said Stuart Mesa Principal Todd McAteer. Senior officers have a separate housing area and elementary school.

Students attend middle and high school in Oceanside, a military town next to the base.

Nearly three out of four students at Stuart Mesa have a parent in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere overseas, McAteer said. War and death are frequent class topics.

"It's an undercurrent throughout every classroom," McAteer said.

Many students scan newspapers and display an uncanny familiarity with world events. One fifth-grader tells a visitor about Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Odai, who heads the National Iraqi Olympic Committee and has a reputation for brutality.

Younger children have a harder time coping. Navy chaplains train Stuart Mesa's teachers to deal with children's fears. They organize kindergartners and first-graders into a morning circle to hear what's on their minds, McAteer said.

For a class project pinned on the wall, one kindergarten boy wrote: "I keep crying about my dad because I miss him so much."

The school has set up a donated Web camera that allows Marines with access to a computer to log on to a Web site and watch their children at school. The school has ordered four cameras to keep up with demand.

The Web camera was in Nancy Laing's second-grade classroom recently, where students were asked to write reports about a hero.

Brianna Ash, a 7-year-old with multiple sclerosis, picked her father, a Marine sergeant in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.

"We get letters from him, and he says he's playing in the sand and he loves us," Brianna wrote in her report. "I watch the news sometimes and it says that daddy isn't just playing in the sand anymore."

Aylah, a bubbly redhead, hasn't heard from her father, Cpl. Brian Spurgeon, in a month.

"I'm worried sick," she said.

She knows the risks and, if she could, says she would send him a message: "Try your hardest to live."