June 14, 2009
The weights above 17-year-old Dan Fittos' head are 135 pounds, and
he's just about had it with bench-pressing for the day.
His friend, Dan Trommer, stands behind his head, spotting him,
encouraging him to do one more. Just one.
"Breathe out as you're pushing up," Trommer said.
Both Irondequoit High School seniors are exhausted, a function of
insomnia and too much homework. It's early May and end-of-the-year
projects are piling up, but ditching the high school fitness room for
the afternoon isn't an option. These workouts have a defined purpose
with a date attached: In a few weeks, Fittos and Trommer will be
doing push-ups for a drill sergeant. They are among the U.S. Army's
Fittos will be a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic. Trommer, 18, will be
an airborne ranger, one of the troops who jump out of airplanes.
Their other close friend and fellow Irondequoit senior, 18-year-old
Eric Hebing, will be a chaplain assistant. All three will ship off to
basic training this summer, as most suburban high school graduates
save up money for school and await freshman roommate assignments.
All three likely will see combat. By the time their former classmates
face first-semester midterms, the recruits could be in Iraq,
Afghanistan or on a military base somewhere on the other side of the world.
More than 630 high school seniors in Monroe County have joined the
four major branches of the armed forces since 2004, according to data
provided by local Army officials. The highest numbers of high school
recruits come from Webster and western suburbs including Parma,
Greece and Ogden.
The role of military recruiters in schools has been hotly debated
on both the local and national stage in recent months.
In this region, the debate has been loudest in the Rochester School
District, where the school board is weighing whether to modify its
Parents currently must give the OK before their children's contact
information can be released to the military. The policy has been
criticized by some as violating the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
In most area school districts, student information is released to
recruiters unless a parent prohibits it. Recruiters are often
afforded the same access as college representatives. At Irondequoit
High School, military recruiters are invited to set up a table in the
commons area three times a year. Students can speak with the
recruiters during lunch periods.
The City School District's restrictive policy may be affecting the
number of Rochester teens joining the military. Five-year enlistment
totals within city ZIP codes trail those in most surrounding suburbs,
even though the city has the largest school district in the county.
Trommer, Fittos and Hebing say they're joining the Army because they
want the structure, because they're not cut out for academics,
because they believe they'll find meaning in the work the Army offers
them. The decision isn't a gut reaction to 9/11, which prompted many
to enlist seven or eight years ago. For these young men, 9/11
happened almost half a lifetime ago, when they were too young to
understand what it meant.
Corene Fittos, who raised Dan almost entirely on her own, has spent
the past nine months fretting about his grades. Now, with graduation
in sight, there's no way to deny what's coming. Her son will leave
for basic training in six weeks, and she's already missing him. He
doesn't eat dinner with her anymore the way he used to.
"He's decided to be with his friends as opposed to being home," she
said. "So I just have to let him, let it be. Let him get it out. It's
been very stressful ... it hasn't been easy this year."
Sometime during his sophomore year, Dan Trommer watched a cable TV
program about a Special Forces team in Iraq. He liked what he saw.
His brother, Joel, had recently joined the Army National Guard. The
pieces were falling into place. He wanted in. Trommer sees military
service as a family tradition. His uncles served. His father, a
Vietnam veteran, would tell the occasional war story. When Trommer
was 13, his father and mother divorced, and Trommer has no idea where
his dad lives now. Still, military service became part of both the
Trommer sons' identities. Joel Trommer is expected to go to Iraq
within the year.
Dan Trommer first got a call from Army recruiter Staff Sgt. Ryan
Kennedy during his junior year of high school. He didn't meet with
Kennedy right away, partly because his mother, Veronica, balked at
the idea of her second son joining the military. But in the fall of
Trommer's senior year, Kennedy called back, and this time, Trommer
agreed to meet him at the recruiting station in BayTowne Plaza.
Kennedy, a 2002 Greece Athena graduate, spent 26 months in Iraq and
has earned his bachelor's degree since enlisting seven years ago.
Last year, he was asked to become a recruiter in his hometown for a
Kennedy met with Trommer, his mom and his brother last fall, shortly
after their first meeting at the recruiting station. He told the
family that if Trommer signed up during high school, he would get
about $1,000 in bonus money every month until he graduated. He'd also
have time to work up to promotions before starting basic training.
Veronica Trommer signed the papers in October. She knew her son would
join regardless of whether she chose to support him. Months later,
she's gotten used to the idea, but she's still "not crazy about it,"
Dan Trommer said.
"A few days ago, she was telling me how she's going to miss me when
I'm gone and how she's going to be a basket case," Trommer said. "I
try to tell her not to worry, I'll be fine. But of course, her being
a mother, she's protective."
'This is what he wants'
After Trommer's mom signed him into the Army, Kennedy urged him to
get other friends on board. If Trommer got anyone else to join,
Kennedy told him, he would be eligible for a promotion.
Dan Fittos had already been considering the military when Trommer
talked to him. Fittos didn't join until a few months after the chat,
and he denies he was persuaded by any one person. But because Trommer
presumably played a role in his friend's decision, Trommer was
promoted after Fittos enlisted.
Fittos' decision to enlist wasn't a surprise to his mother. He had
thrown around the idea for years. He'd been struggling with school
since ninth grade, the year he and his mom moved from the city to Irondequoit.
Still, Corene Fittos hung on to the dream that her son would go to
college. After graduating from East High School, Corene never went to
college, and in some ways she wishes she had. While she's happy with
her job as a sales associate for VP Supply, working for a plumbing
supply company is the only thing she's ever done.
"I want him to have choices," she said.
The military, he's told her, is his choice. School was never his
choice. That's partly why Corene Fittos, like Veronica Trommer,
signed the papers so her son could enlist at 17. She is preoccupied
most of all with her son's safety.
Has he thought about what might happen if he ends up in Afghanistan
or Iraq? Of course, he said.
"The way I see it is, if I have to die for my country, that's the way
I want to die. Dying for your country if that's what happens I'm
all right with that. I didn't join thinking I wouldn't be on active
duty. I wasn't oblivious to the fact that it's a time of war, and at
war, people have to sacrifice."
His mother says she tries from time to time to talk to him about
what's at stake here.
"It has no impact," she said. "I ask him, 'What if you lose an arm,
or a leg? What are you going to do then?' It just doesn't affect him.
He's made his mind up; it's his decision. This is what he wants. So I
have to and I will support him."
The right reasons
Eric Hebing will be the first of his friends to go to basic training.
He leaves in 16 days.
He said he joined the military so he could help people. His job
options were somewhat limited because he is colorblind, but he still
managed to find a profession that fits his goals. As a chaplain
assistant, he'll provide support to Army ministry. He will double as
a bodyguard in dangerous situations.
Hebing said his grades have been good, but he can't imagine going
straight into four more years of school.
"Growing up, I always thought about doing the Army, so I could help
out and do something for my country," Hebing said.
Hebing began serious research on the military in September. He met
with Kennedy and asked what the Army could offer. In October, he enlisted.
While Hebing was set on a stint in the military, some students have
Brandon Fox, a guidance counselor at Penfield High School, went to a
Marine Corps basic training workshop for educators four years ago
because he didn't have a good sense of what joining the military
entailed. He wanted to give better feedback when students broached
enlistment as a post-graduation plan.
Now, he knows what they'll face in basic training if they enlist. He
has a better idea of what recruiters are looking for. He can help
students figure out if the military is the best option.
"I like to find out what information they have and where they got it
from, and find out the reason for their choice, just because it is
such a large and very possibly dangerous commitment," Fox said.
At least five Penfield High School seniors will be going into the
Marine Corps after graduation, Fox said, though military enlistments
are relatively uncommon. Ninety percent of the Penfield class of 2008
enrolled in a two- or four-year college.
Irondequoit High School reports similar numbers: 94 percent of last
year's graduating seniors went to college. West Irondequoit district
spokeswoman Carol Crumlish said that as far as she knows, Trommer,
Fittos and Hebing are the only members of the class of 2009 who have
enlisted in the military. One other student may be considering the
option, she said.
One week from today, all three are expected to walk across the stage
and receive their diplomas. Eric Hebing leaves June 30 for basic
training at Fort Jackson, S.C. Dan Fittos will join him there July
22. And Dan Trommer ships off to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.,
on July 23.
Some people at school have questioned the young men for becoming
soldiers. Certain classmates, Hebing said, have gone as far as
calling him stupid for signing up.
What they don't realize is that he's signing up, in part, to protect
them the very people who are criticizing his choice.
Kennedy said he can imagine 20-year military careers for all three of
these recruits. By the age of 38, Trommer, Fittos and Hebing will be
able to retire with a full pension.
"These guys know what they want," Kennedy said. "They're going to be
great assets to the Army, and they're going to be very successful."