MILLBURN, NJ - The latest news is filled with stories of more terror plots related to the bombs sent in printer cartridges destined for synagogues in Chicago. In the suburbs of New Jersey we heave a sigh of relief that the explosives were intercepted and security is once again being tightened to protect us. The war we continue to wage against Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, seems very far away. We know that those are American soldiers fighting there, but they are someone else’s children. They come from the South, or the inner cities. They are people we don’t know. This is the myth many are comforted by and live with, but it’s not true -- these are our kids. As Veteran’s Day approaches, we should appreciate them along with all the men and women who have served our country in the past.
One young soldier currently fighting in Iraq graduated from Millburn High School in 2009. His name is Anthony Fleming. When Anthony’s friends were frantically filling out their college applications, he was calm. He knew where he was going after graduation. He was going to boot camp.
Anthony was adopted with his brother and sister at the age of six. He says that he always thought soldiers were “cool” as he grew up. His father says that Anthony actually didn’t decide to join the military until his options were laid out by a guidance counselor in high school. Daniel Fleming, his adopted father, feared at the time that, “… Anthony thought it was the easiest way to go. It was all decided and he wouldn’t have to work that hard.” Anthony remembers it differently. He feels that it gave him a purpose in life.
"I actually decided I wanted to join the military when I was first adopted at the age of 6 in kindergarten. As I grew up the reason changed to wanting to help people, protecting those at home that I love and those who needed protection."
Anthony was in elementary school when the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001. That day hit everyone in this area with particular force. Many of us lost friends or family. It made a deep impression on Anthony.
“Come 9/11 I made a vow that at the cost of my own life or limb I would fight my hardest to make sure nothing like that ever happened again and that those I fought alongside I would protect with my own life so that they could get home to their wives and children. I don't want to see a child having to grow up in the world father or motherless.” When he got to high school he began to consider his options.
"As for choosing the army, they had more options as what to do and would help the most with college, too.”
As a youngster Anthony was often rebellious. He was bright, but he never really applied himself to his studies. He just never was interested in class work. In the Army he seems to have found a focus. My son who attended Millburn High with him said, “Anthony was always really, really smart, but in school most of the time, he just didn’t care. When he liked something, even if it was hard, he aced it.”
Anthony’s future following his current “hitch” is uncertain. His father actually hopes, “…he will stay in awhile. His mother and I hope he will stay in long enough to really get something out of it.” Even though they were not enthusiastic when he first chose to join the army, they think he benefits from the structure and stability the Army offers. They both think that he needs some time to grow up and hope that he will take that time, with the support the Army offers.
Thanks to the much maligned “Facebook,” Anthony is able to stay in contact with his friends from high school. They study for exams while he prepares for missions. It is a sobering reality for those young people stressing out over grades and broken romances. He sends back pictures from the front and news of the latest weapon he has qualified to carry.
It is good for all of us here in the States to put faces on those brave young men and women who stand in harm’s way to protect us. It should make us think when we vote to send them into action or whether or not to fund the weapons they need to fight or the gear that will protect them. The soldiers are not all disadvantaged youths from inner cities or small towns where they had no choices or opportunities. Those kids on the front lines are ours. They are from our neighborhoods and our families.
In the face of all that, Anthony still makes me laugh. One day he described Iraq and said, “Take away all the good parts of the beach...and what’s left is Iraq….” “I would like to make a toast to lying, stealing, cheating, and drinking. If you’re going to lie, lie for a friend. If you’re going to steal, steal a heart. If you’re going to cheat, cheat death. And if you’re going to drink, drink with me.”
Anthony is only of the one young soldiers fighting for us in Iraq. There are many more like him, each with a story and each with his and her own reason for being there. Each has family and friends waiting at home, praying for his or her safe return.