Two Marines will not be allowed by school policy to wear dress blues to their June 9 high school graduation, but administrators have made some concessions to recognize their military service.
The mothers of Zain Hartsook, 18, and Brayden Anderson, 17, believe their sons should be granted an exemption to the requirement that they wear traditional cap and gown to The Dalles High School commencement exercise.
“He went to boot camp so he could train to serve his country while he was still in high school and he has earned the right to wear that uniform,” said Heather Davis, mother of Hartsook.
She plans to ask state Rep. Daniel Bonham, who resides in The Dalles, to follow the lead of other states and sponsor legislation that will allow military uniforms to be worn by graduates if they have completed basic training. Laws to that effect are now in place in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and California.
Most states still defer decisions about the graduation dress code to local jurisdictions.
“It’s too late to get this done for our kids, but maybe we can get things changed for other families,” said Davis.
She and Jennifer Anderson, mother of Brayden, do not know if their sons will walk with their classmates if they cannot show up as Marines. The women have limited contact with the teens while they are undergoing the rigors of basic training at Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego, Calif., so they will have to exchange letters to discuss the situation.
Anderson graduates as a Marine on June 1 and Hartsook on June 8, the day before his high school graduation.
“Brayden really wanted to walk with his class, so I don’t know what he will do, but I will stand with him,” said Anderson.
Bonham said he is willing to sponsor a bill to address the issue.
“These young men are putting their lives on the line for all of us, so I feel it’s the least we can do,” he said. “Service for country and community qualifies for an exemption. These kids volunteered for something greater than themselves, they stand for an ideal and, by doing so, they have offered to give their lives for everyone on that field and in this country.
“Wearing a uniform that they have earned through dedication and sacrifice is a fitting way to ensure that Zain Harstook and Brayden Anderson have the opportunity to demonstrate pride in their country and in their service during one of life’s milestones.”
Nick Nelson, principal of the high school, said the dress code for graduation was developed over a period of several years to assure that the event centers on scholastic achievement and individual career choices.
“The focus is about the whole group,” he said of the dress policy.
The school allows graduates to personalize the top of their mortarboard with decorations, wear academic medallions as issued by the district and cultural regalia previously approved by the administration.
Polynesian students are permitted to wear one family lei each and American Indian students one cultural symbol as discussed and approved by the ESD Indian Education Committee.
After learning that Hartsook and Anderson wanted to wear uniforms, Nelson and Kurt Evans, TDHS vice principal, came up with what they view as a compromise solution.
Their proposal is to provide Anderson and Davis with red, white and blue cords to wear over their robe to denote their military service.
Once the Marines and other graduates have marched in and been seated, Nelson said the color guard will enter. At that time, he said all active-duty military personnel will be asked to stand and be recognized.
In addition, he said the graduation program will list the rank of Anderson and Davis to point out their service.
They will also be called to get their diploma by military rank as well as their names. Nelson said if there is a veteran on the school board, he will ask that individual to present diplomas to the two Marines.
“We are more than willing to sit down and talk more about the situation with the parents,” he said.
Anderson said the compromise plan is an option her son might consider, but she is unsure what he will decide.
“I totally appreciate what they are willing to do,” she said. “I feel at least the school is trying and they are recognizing his service and that’s a good start. It’s completely up to Brayden though.”
USMC Sgt. Steven Tran, marketing and public affairs representative for Recruiting Station Portland, emailed a response to a reporter’s question about where the Corps stood on the issue:
"The Marine Corps is proud of our new Marines and appreciates their pride in wearing the uniform. We also recognize that there are policies in place which outline graduation dress codes and the appropriate wear of Marinee Corps uniforms when in public. As high school graduations recognize the academic accomplishments of the class and the class's final chapter at that institution, the decision to allow individuals to wear uniforms during graduations is at the discretion of the school."
Davis said other students are singled out for special roles, such as the salutatorian and valedictorian. She said Harstook and Anderson finished their graduation requirements early to spend three months enduring hardship and sacrifice on behalf of more than 323 million other Americans.
“I understand both sides, I do, but I’m on my son’s side because I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Anderson said D21 officials initially suggested that Brayden wear the cap and gown over his Marine uniform, but that is a violation of Department of Defense protocol.
A Facebook post about the issue on ‘What’s Happening in The Dalles?” has drawn mixed comments.
“This whole ceremony isn’t about him being a Marine,” wrote one local resident. “It’s about graduating from high school. Why is a Marine bucking the system already? Are the rules not for everyone?”
Other remarks congratulated the teens and supported letting them walk in uniform.
Davis said it has been difficult emotionally to cope with some of the unkind remarks that were posted because of what her son is going through right now. A special website allows her to track his training cycle and she could not be more proud.
“I’ve been able to see five pictures of him,” she said. “He’s going to be a combat engineer, which will put him in front of the front lines, but I just can’t think about that right now — it’s just one day at a time.”
Next week, Anderson will undergo the Crucible, the 54-hour test that every recruit must go through to earn the title of Marine.
“I’m getting myself mentally prepared for that,” she said of knowing that her child will be struggling in such a difficult ordeal.
The Crucible involves food and sleep deprivation and over 45 miles of marching. Teams of recruits are pitted against a barrage of day and night obstacles and must work together to solve problems and help each other along the way.
The event is considered a rite of passage by the Marines that is intended to teach recruits what they can accomplish through shared sacrifice.
Anderson said adjusting to life as a military mom is a process that involves a lot of worry and tears. Despite the emotional roller coaster, she totally supports what her son is doing because the military helped him reframe his life.
“Brayden was really struggling in school, he was way behind, so he decided to go to a military school last summer,” she explained.
The discipline and structure were exactly what her son needed, said Anderson, because he came home in mid-December with all his high school credits up to speed, his senior binder done, and his community service requirement fulfilled.
He finished up the classes he needed to graduate by March 1 and left for MCRD four days later.
“The military changed my son’s life,” said Anderson. “He wanted to walk with his class in uniform to show how you can turn things around — to be a role model for others who are struggling.”
Brayden will leave soon after high school graduation for Camp Pendleton in California to train in avionic mechanics. After one month, he will transfer to Pensacola, Fla., to spend about a year learning how to maintain and repair specialized aircraft.
“He wanted to be in the military from the time he was about 2 years old,” said Anderson. “It’s been his passion and his love.”
Zain will also report to Camp Pendleton after a 10-day leave.
The moms are encouraged by Bonham’s willinness to act on behalf of military families.
“I really don’t even understand why this is an issue,” said Anderson. “We, as a country, should always honor military service.”
Bonham said, if Zain and Brayden decide not to participate in the school program, he’ll work to ensure that their graduation is recognized by the community in a fitting ceremony.
“We need to recognize these Marines for their service; they deserve to be commended,” he said.