Students fire away with questions for military officials in Hempfield

| Friday, Feb. 26, 2010

Should the United States pull troops out of Iraq this summer• How long will the War on Terror last• Should gays and lesbians serve openly in the military?

Students from Hempfield Area, Burrell and Greater Latrobe high schools grilled a panel of high-ranking military officers on these and other issues Thursday as part of a program by the U.S. Army War College. The event, which took place at Hempfield Area High School, was sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that promotes education about international issues throughout Western Pennsylvania.

The four officers, who are pursuing advanced degrees at the Army War College in Carlisle, gave brief talks on military intelligence, counterinsurgency, and fighting piracy off the Somali coast.

More than 600 students from the three high schools attended the program, said Hempfield Assistant Principal Aaron Steinly.

"Our history department spent some time in class talking about the War College so they could ask good questions," Steinly said.

Hempfield Area sophomore Brandon Cotter, 16, was curious about the Iraq War.

"I've never gotten a clear answer as to why we're there," Cotter said.

When it was his turn to ask a question, Cotter noted that the Iraq War was based on the erroneous belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He asked the officers why the United States was not planning to invade North Korea, which is known to have such weapons.

Intelligence experts do not believe North Korea poses a "clear and present danger," said Army Col. Steven Watt.

"Intelligence is not knowledge," Watt said. "Intelligence, at the end of the day, is your best guess."

Cotter was not entirely satisfied with the response.

"I think they kind of danced around it a little bit," he said later.

Valerie Price, 17, a Hempfield junior with plans to join the military after graduation, asked the officers why women are not allowed to serve in combat units or special forces.

"I've talked to all the branches," she said, "and they all say I'm not allowed to be in special forces. I'm not even allowed to be a sniper."

"That's a congressional mandate," replied Watt. "I, personally, do not agree with it."

"There's no environment in the military that will not be open to women in your lifetime," Navy Cmdr. Timothy Riegle told Price.

The officers, who are touring high schools and universities around the country with the War College's Eisenhower Series College Program, said they were impressed with the questions.

"We don't often get to interact at this level," Watt said, "so this is very refreshing. The depth of the knowledge these kids have is a good sign."

"It's tough for us to answer these questions in class when we ask them of each other," added Army Col. Burl Randolph Jr.

"I don't remember having that kind of depth of knowledge when I was in high school," said Riegle. "They're very engaged, and I think it's because they realize they're the ones who will have to deal with these issues."

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