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Joint Chiefs head visits alma mater

Adm. Michael Mullen is impressed with Notre Dame High students' questions and 'thirst' for knowledge.

September 20, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

It may not have had the same intensity as a Pentagon briefing, but when Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stepped before an assembly at Notre Dame High School on Friday, students had serious questions on their minds.

What are the most pressing dangers of U.S. military involvement in Pakistan? a student asked Mullen, who had just visited the volatile country. Where else in the world do you think the U.S. military could be engaged in the next 10 years? If you could go back, would you have waged war in Iraq? Who are you voting for in the presidential election?

It was Mullen's first trip to the Sherman Oaks campus since his appointment almost a year ago as Joint Chiefs chairman, the principal military advisor to the president. A 1964 alumnus with deep ties to the community and the school, he saw it as a chance to press his message to young people that failure is OK but that one can still succeed through persistence and hard work.

For the students, it was an up-close-and-personal lesson in current affairs. Afterward, admiral and students seemed equally impressed.

"I was happy to see him share his point of view and what he thought about such serious issues," said Ian Irwin, 17.

In his answers, Mullen was both candid and cagey. He identified Afghanistan as among the poorest of nations, and one that will likely occupy American resources for years to come.

"The threat is growing there and we have to ensure that the conditions that took us there in 2002 are not re-created," he said.

Regarding Iraq, he reminded the students that as a member of the military, it is his job to carry out policy -- not to make it. And when asked about his presidential choice, he jokingly answered Pedro, referring to the character in the film "Napoleon Dynamite" whose campaign for class president is one of the main plot points.

"We are in the middle of selecting a president," Mullen said more solemnly, "and I will serve that president as I serve this one. The military is a neutral organization and we should remain neutral."

During his remarks, Mullen spoke of the dangers facing the U.S. from terrorists and insurgents but also of goals shared with other nations for peace and prosperity and of the need for Americans to see the world through others' eyes.

"We have to sit down with people and talk with people, and decisions must be mutually acceptable, not singularly acceptable," he said.

Those sentiments won praise from Kati Teague, a senior who said she opposes current U.S policy in Iraq.

"That sparked something for me -- that you can be in the military and that it's not just about fighting," said Teague, 17. "It was unexpected. He said things that I think are exactly what the military needs to be saying. That gained my respect."

Mullen spoke about how academics and his years as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., underpinned his career.

Michelle Fuller said his example has helped her to set a high goal for herself. The 18-year-old senior enlisted in the Marine Corps on delayed entry status and will leave in July for Perris Island, S.C., to be trained as an aviation communications technician.

"It's definitely given me a lot more inspiration to go to college and not just the Marines," said Fuller, who aspires to become an FBI agent. "He's an important figure not just for Notre Dame but for every high school."

After his address, Mullen lauded the students for their level of maturity and sophistication and their knowledge of global events.

"They show a tremendous thirst for how all of this works," Mullen said. "They were pretty incredible questions and they were not about me but about much bigger things."

Earlier in the day, Mullen was honored by dignitaries at Los Angeles City Hall downtown. Later, to the cheers of students, faculty and staff, he honored the school that played such a big role in his life.

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

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For more coverage of Southland schools, visit The Times' education blog at latimes.com/thehomeroom

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