With the war in Iraq winding down, Americans are slowly letting out a sigh of relief. But for hundreds of high school students in and around Camp Pendleton, the tension is far from over.
For those teens with a parent or other close relatives deployed in the war, the last several weeks have been an early lesson in adulthood, with all the attendant responsibilities and stress.
"They have had to mature in many ways," said Loren O'Connor, San Clemente High School's psychologist. He has counseled many of the 100 students who have a family member in the Marines on deployment. "They have had to go into a survival mode to try and help out their families."
Survival mode means taking on more household chores.
"For the young men, their dads may have left the toolbox," said Glenda Kimbrel, a counselor at Oceanside High School. "And now they are in charge of repairs in the whole house."
At least 85 students at the school have family members, in most cases fathers, deployed.
Some teens have had to learn to become surrogate parents to their younger siblings, driving them to doctor's appointments and taking on part-time jobs to help make ends meet.
In addition to adult responsibilities, teenage children of service members must contend with adult worries, school counselors say. Unlike younger children, whose overwhelming emotions are likely to be confusion and fear, they have a deeper understanding of the battlefield risks. "There is no hiding for these kids," Kimbrel said.
They have a personal stake in every bomb that explodes, in every bullet that is fired. "When you see it in the news ... you think, 'Gosh, I wonder if my dad was in the middle of all that?' " said Lekietha "Peaches" Allen, a San Clemente High junior.
San Clemente and other high schools around Camp Pendleton, just south of the Orange County border, have worked hard to help teens with parents fighting in Iraq. Counselors have been made available for them. They hold weekly group sessions, and their doors are open for individual counseling.
Teachers have also been asked to acknowledge students who may be under added pressure. Although those teenagers are expected to keep up with their schoolwork, staff members offer them extra encouragement or a simple "How are things?"
"We need to be really sensitive to these kids," said San Clemente High Principal Chuck Hinman, whose campus is adorned with yellow ribbons to show support for the troops.
The students say they appreciate all the support, but war is mostly a heart-wrenching wait for them and their families. Letters take weeks to arrive from the battlefield, and by the time family members read them, they can't help but think the worst. Were these his last words?
This is the second experience with war for Lekietha, 16. Her Navy mother and Marine stepfather were deployed during the Persian Gulf War. Her mother, Orzandria Sherman, has since quit the Navy, but her father, Marine Sgt. Bobby Sherman, 34, of Camp Pendleton is in Iraq.
"Is Daddy going to die?" her 6-year-old brother Branden asked recently. "No, sweetie," Lekietha told him. "God will protect him."
Zach Lee, another 16-year-old from San Clemente High, said his mother "can't stop watching the news. She falls asleep watching the television. It's been a lot of stress to put up with" since his stepfather, 1st Sgt. David Zhorne, left for the war zone.
The good news comes in the form of occasional e-mails or a quick telephone call. Lekietha's friend, Janelle Siegfried, 17, heard from her father, 1st Sgt. Kris Siegfried, a couple of weeks ago. "He tries to make me laugh," said the junior, whose father is with a unit in charge of transporting ammunition. "He said, 'On the bright side, if they nail me, I'm going to explode and die quickly.' I said, 'Please, Dad, don't say that,' " she recalled.
"Basically, my dad says, 'I love you kids, and I'm gonna come home,' " Janelle said. "But is he really coming home?"
Amid all the uncertainty and fear, the teens cling desperately to the things that make them regular kids: outings to the mall, parties and especially school.
"School is actually a relief," said Enrique Lagunas, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I try to stay home as little as possible."
Enrique's sister, with whom he has been living while her husband is on deployment, paints a different picture. "He has kept me strong," said Maria Gomez, 26. "He keeps the children when I need some time alone, and I've needed a lot of time alone."
Lekietha has also been a source of strength, her mother said. "I feel like I have to be the strong person," Orzandria Sherman said. "If they see me cry, they will know something is wrong. But Peaches tells me it is OK to cry.... She keeps me laughing whenever I am at that point when I am ready to break down and cry."
She knows when to be serious too. Branden wanted to know: "Why did Daddy leave us?"
"Daddy didn't leave us," Lekietha said. "Daddy belongs to President Bush, and when the president asks his Marines to do a job, they must do their job. He will be home soon."