On the first day of school, students returned to Forest Park Senior High School yesterday and confronted war.
Within two weeks, two members of the Class of 2000, both members of the well-regarded Junior ROTC program, died in combat - Army Spc. Toccara Renee Green in Iraq on Aug. 14 and Army Staff Sgt. Damion G. Campbell in Afghanistan on Friday.
"All of this has made me think that I might not want to do it," said Ericka Wilson, 17, a senior and ROTC member. "I'm not so sure anymore."
It was a day of reflection and sadness. Campbell, 23, died the same day that Green was interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
"We just buried a beautiful young lady," said English teacher Joan Maurice. "These poor children go into the military to get some money for college and they are coming home in coffins."
Business teacher Brenda Wallace, who knew both soldiers as students, pulled out a 2000 yearbook to look at photos of Campbell, a tall, lanky young man who led the school's ROTC armed exhibition team to several local and regional wins in his junior and senior years.
"When I heard that he had been killed, on the 11 o'clock news last night, I just started screaming," Wallace said yesterday. "I think we are the only high school in the state that had two former students die in the war in less than a month. It's just unreal."
The ROTC program of which Green and Campbell were members prepares students to take on leadership roles. For some students, it teaches discipline and responsibility. It also is an entry to the armed services, and students were reminded yesterday of the harsh reality of their chosen path: Such a career could mean going to war.
"It's really, really sad," Wilson said of the deaths. "I really feel sad for their families. They were both so young."
Jasmine Alston, 15, a sophomore who is also part of the ROTC program, said she too is having second thoughts about a career in the military.
"It worries me," she said. "Just knowing that they died so young and they went to my school.
"People have asked me if I still want to go into the military. And all I can say is that I'm unsure. I'm even more unsure now."
News of Campbell's death made a tough day even tougher for Forest Park Principal Loretta Breese.
Not only was she trying to get a new school year off to a good start - disciplining a student who showed up in tight pants and a tank top in violation of the dress code, as well as dealing with parents who wanted classes changed for their children - she also had to plan a memorial service.
"Now it's going to be bigger," Breese said of the service, which she said will be held at the school and include both soldiers' families. "We've got to do it for two graduates now. We've got to get that organized, and soon."
For many teachers, yesterday was the first time they had been able to discuss Green's death - which occurred during the summer break - with colleagues who knew her from her years at Forest Park.
For students, most of whom are too young to have known Green and Campbell, it was a chance to share thoughts on death and war with fellow classmates and trusted adults.
"Everyone was talking about it," Alston said. "It was one of the main topics."
Former teacher and retired Army Col. Franklin W. Collins, who worked with both soldiers when they were in the ROTC program at Forest Park, said their deaths should not scare their classmates away from the military, and they should be proud that they had served their country.
He remembered Green and Campbell as standout students. Both participated in award-winning drill teams: Campbell was the commander of the armed exhibition team; Green was a member of the female exhibition team.
"Those two youngsters, from the time they came into the program, you knew they were achievers," Collins said.
Collins said that he had several discussions with Campbell about his future and that the Army appealed to the young man because of the many opportunities it would provide, including foreign travel. Campbell, a medic, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment based in Vicenza, Italy.
"He really did think about college and law enforcement," Collins said. "But he thought the Army would be a good career for him."
Campbell last visited his ROTC teacher in 2001. Collins said that, at his invitation, Campbell came to discuss his work in the Army with some students. The teacher said he often thought about Campbell and hoped he was safe.
"You keep praying that they come through OK," Collins said. "I pray for all of my students in the service."
Collins - who spoke at Green's memorial service last week - said he was still reeling from one death when he found out about the second.
"It's like someone hits you with a body blow that bends you over," he said. "It's a lot to take."
Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times