FALLSTON – In the face of state sentiment against the war in Iraq and fatalities swiftly moving past the 2,000 mark, Bel Air native Joe Rappold looked forward to leaving last Monday for Marine Corps’ basic training.
“It’s all about sacrifice,” Rappold said. “Everybody’s given something, and to me, that just makes me feel like I earned the right to call myself an American.”
Rappold’s attitude runs against Maryland’s current trend, but permeates his alma mater of Fallston High School, which sits in a Baltimore suburb residents consider a breath of unabashed patriotism in a suffocatingly blue state.
And while numbers of military-bound students decline statewide, Fallston High continues to graduate students into the armed forces and service academies.
But this counter-trend of military service has come at a price: two alumni have been killed in Iraq so far, making Fallston part of a rarefied tier of schools to suffer multiple deaths from the war. At least two such schools are in Maryland.
Residents here wear their patriotism proudly — American flags adorn houses, and local kids who join the military are given genuine hero treatment.
Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Ryan Adle, a 2001 Fallston graduate killed last year when his vehicle struck a land mine south of Baghdad, was sent to war with that kind of celebration.
His Bel Air neighborhood lined the streets, mail boxes and light poles with yellow ribbons and dozens of signs wishing him well, making for a surprise mini-parade in his honor.
“We had tremendous support in the community,” said his mother, Pamela Adle-Watts, 45.
Statewide, that support is less certain: A poll from Annapolis-based Gonzales Research & Marketing found Maryland voters opposed by nearly 2-to-1 the Bush administration’s handling of the war.
The number of military-bound public high school seniors, state figures show, is at a 10-year low: 994 students, or 2 percent of the state’s senior class, reported such plans in 2005. It was twice that through the late 1990s but plummeted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Fallston High, meanwhile, averages 10 military enrollments a year, pulling twice its weight among Maryland’s public high schools. Recently eight alumni were simultaneously enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy, a notable feat at the highly selective institution that admits just 10 percent of applicants.
The community – encompassing Fallston and parts of nearby Bel Air – sees itself as the neglected contrast to the fact that war fatalities are being disproportionately shouldered by poor troops who joined the military for financial reasons.
“They are upscale people here,” said William Allers Jr., 67, of Fallston, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. William Allers III, was the most recent Fallston High war death. The 1995 graduate was killed in September by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad.
In the area surrounding Fallston, the median income tops $80,000.
Michael Watts, 53, said a chance encounter with a Marine recruiter convinced Adle, his stepson, to consider military service among his wide range of graduation options.
“We’re not a poor household. He had opportunities to go to any college,” he said.
Fallston High School students choose the military, school officials said, solely out of a sense of duty.
“It’s not, in any way, shape or form, a decision of resort as opposed to opportunity,” said Principal Kevin Fleming.
Fleming is quick to point out that the military is just one example of the sense of service the school tries to instill in students.
The school has assumed since its inception in 1977 that Fallston students will take up some form of community service, and in this town that goes well beyond meeting a minimum requirement. Some 30 percent of its student body participates in service clubs.
In some ways, that involvement helps to unite Fallston, which has grown into a haven for families employed in Baltimore. A lack of longstanding ties to the area, Fleming said, means the community here is the product of residents’ efforts to connect, with the school as a centerpiece.
It also means this young area was hit especially hard by the loss of hometown sons Adle and Allers.
David Petr, a media technician at Fallston High and a 24-year reservist with the U.S. Air Force, was on duty as a chaplain’s assistant at Dover Air Force Base when Adle’s body arrived in July 2004.
“It drove home the point to me that students who have come throughout the history of the school . . . gave the supreme sacrifice,” Petr said. “It was quite touching to know he walked the same hallways as students and myself.”
Rappold, 25, a 1998 Fallston graduate who said he has meandered among construction jobs since high school, attributed part of his decision to join the Marine Corps to the passion his school and community has for service.
“Being in an environment like this has always pushed me to try to do . . . more,” Rappold said.
That environment also helps him come to terms with the mortal risk of his service — risk that claimed the life of Adle, a neighborhood pal.
“I’m at peace with that, that I may not come home. But it’s necessary, and somebody has to do it,” Rappold said. “Having the support of the community . . . down the road I know that’s going to make it a lot easier for me to follow through.” – 30 –