Young Leaders Tour Washington, Pentagon
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 7, 2008 More than 100 high school students, wearing business suits and looking more like politicians than teenagers, crowded the halls of the Pentagon today during one of their final stops in a week-long tour of the capital city.
The students represented all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Defense Department Education Activity as part of the U.S. Senate Youth Program.
The program brings the brightest and most promising young leaders here for tours and talks with the nation’s top leaders all the way up to the president. Today they met with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and toured the Pentagon.
Their visits also include stops at the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court and the White House. They meet senior officials and hold discussions with them along the way. The student delegates are able to discuss current public and national security policy issues with senators, cabinet members and other senior government officials.
“That was pretty cool,” said Christopher Brown, one of the DoD Education Activity delegates, speaking of his visit with the various key political leaders.
A self-described “political junkie,” Brown is a junior whose parents teach in the Defense Department’s Hanau High School in Hanau, Germany.
“I follow politics a lot. It was really interesting. I didn’t realize how much of a difference there was between the Senate and the House in the processes and how they work, so that was pretty cool,” Brown said.
Brown has been around the military his whole life and was born in Germany. To be selected, he had to take tests, write essays and send in a video of his responses to government-related questions. Brown’s teacher selected him because of his involvement with student government.
Brown said the Defense Secretary was different than he expected.
“He was a little quieter than I thought, and a little more unassuming. And that actually gave me more respect for him,” Brown said of his meeting with Gates. “I kind of felt like I could relate to him.”
Gates spoke to the students about the importance of integrity in their personal and professional lives, and answered questions, mostly relating to military policies and the war in Iraq, Brown said.
Brianna Fitch, also a DoD Education Activity delegate, said his talk really hit home for her.
“He was a very nice man. It was kind of nice to see the personal side of these figures [whose pictures] you see hanging on the wall every day in the chain of command. And I really took his words to heart, especially those about staying honest,” she said.
Fitch’s father is a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and she has been an “Army brat” all of her life. She is a senior at Brussels American School in Brussels, Belgium.
She graduates “exactly three months from yesterday,” but who’s counting. Her grandfather was also in the Army, but Brown said she plans to join the Peace Corps after graduation, and then possibly work as a political officer for the U.S. State Department.
“It’s inspiring to see how many people are willing to listen to us,” she said. “Even the speakers are saying ‘It’s your future. You guys are going to be the ones that are going to be here some day.’ That’s very exciting and motivating to hear.”
Fitch said that one of the best things about the trip has been developing relationships with the other candidates and listening to their perspectives on issues.
“It’s been a really great experience talking to them, hearing a lot of different political views, and I’ve liked getting to share a European view point,” she said. “Our speakers have been excellent. Some have been very thought provoking.”
She said the trip has given her a broader perspective, and, Brown believes, she has contributed to broadening others. She said her military life gives her a different view of political views, especially the war.
“Every figure you see in the news of deaths, those are people and they all have families,” she said. “I think that definitely gives you a different perspective when you know people whose parents go off to war and who sometimes don’t come back.”
Army Maj. Michelle Avolio, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot with 200 hours combat flight experience in Iraq said she was actually intimidated when she found out she would be acting as a mentor for a week for six teenage girls.
As a mentor, Avolio has followed her group 24 hours a day, even sleeping in the same hotel, eating all the same meals. Her job is to be a role model for the delegates and a military representative.
The students’ questions to Aviolo were somewhat predictable. The boys wanted to know if she got shot at. Yes, she did. The girls wanted to know more about what it’s like being a woman in a position of leadership.
“Don’t limit yourself,” she told them. “Just be who you are. Be true to yourself and do the right thing and you’ll shine as a leader.”
Avolio said she volunteered for the job because it was important for the up-and-coming future leaders to have some personal military connection.
“They may [one day] be in very influential positions and may never have been exposed to the military and [would be] making decisions that concern us and our troops,” Avolio said. “So they are able to see us and ask all the questions they want and maybe have a personal experience that when they’re older they can look back on and influence their decisions positively.”
Air Force Capt. Timothy Booher, an Air Force engineer, also dedicated a week away from work, emails, Blackberry devices and his wife and children to work with the delegates.
“I‘m trying to really build rapport with them,” he said. “To hopefully have a relationship where they know someone in the military who they can ask for advice and maybe help frame their understanding of what [we] in the military are like and perhaps challenge some of the stereotypes and assumptions that they might have come into this with.”