Once again, Michael Halt, West Tisbury School principal and Marine Reserve colonel, will answer his country’s call to duty. Mr. Halt has left Martha’s Vineyard in preparation for his deployment to Afghanistan.
Mr. Halt breakfasted with students and faculty Friday morning, his last official working morning before beginning a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Col. Halt is now in California for pre-deployment training. He is expected to return to the Island briefly after that, and then begin his 15-month tour. This is the second deployment that has called the Marine reserve colonel away from the school. The first, almost exactly three years ago, took him to Iraq. Col. Halt is a Gulf War Veteran and a 21-year veteran of the Marines and the reserves. He was also called to active duty immediately following the 9/11 attack.
Mr. Halt, West Tisbury School principal since 2004, announced his imminent departure Monday, at an emotional meeting with the school staff on the first day of classes following the Christmas vacation break. Wednesday, he met with the assembled students in grades six through eight. Also on Wednesday, he visited kindergarten through grade five classes to explain to the young students why he is going away and what he will be doing. He has told his students that he will be helping make life better for children in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, Mr. Halt was assigned to the U.S. Navy Seabees of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, assigned to the Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Fallujah to aid and advise Navy engineers who were working alongside the Marines.
In January 2009, Mr. Halt received a Bronze Star for meritorious service for service in Iraq from March to September 2007 in a ceremony at Naval Station Newport, R.I.
In Afghanistan, he will serve as a liaison between Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills and members of the military and civilian teams working to defeat the Taliban.
Martha’s Vineyard superintendent of schools James Weiss has enlisted Ed Jerome, retired Edgartown School principal, to fill the gap, at least for the short term, while a search take places for someone to fill in for one year. It is a familiar role for Mr. Jerome, who filled in for Mr. Halt previously.
Politics hits home
In a telephone call Mr. Weiss said school officials tried to downplay Mr. Halt’s departure. He said Mr. Halt would be gone for a long time and it was thought best not to drag it out for the students too much.
Mr. Halt’s departure puts national politics in a very personal light. Mr. Weiss said what occurs in Washington affects us, even on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Afghanistan is a tough place and we are concerned for his safety as we would be for anybody who is going off to war,” Mr. Weiss said. “But he is a colonel in the Marine Corps and you go when they tell you to go.”
In a speech on December 1 to a group of West Point cadets, President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer. The president cited the threat of Islamist extremism for his decision.
“If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan,” he said, “I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow.”
Colonel Halt and other American men and women called to arms by the president will join approximately 70,000 troops now in Afghanistan.
Example of service
“I think people were pretty stunned and surprised,” West Tisbury School teacher Margaret Warnke said of the reaction to Mr. Halt’s announcement at a special faculty meeting on January 4. “I think it was unexpected.”
Ms. Warnke said many of those present felt badly for Mr. Halt, his family, and the school. She said the students appeared less visibly shaken than the last time Mr. Halt departed for a war zone, perhaps because they saw him come back and are not as fearful for his safety.
Ms. Warnke said Mr. Halt is a good school leader. “I think he is fair, consistent and not afraid to make tough choices and able to cut through rhetoric and get to the point of something,” she said.
Mr. Halt has also provided an example to the students of what it means to serve. “It isn’t always going to be comfortable, and it isn’t always going to be convenient, and it isn’t always what you want to do at that particular time, and it may be inconvenient or upsetting for other people, but that does not make it any less honorable,” Ms. Warnke said.
Teacher Mary Boyd said that beyond the immediate burst of concern there is a sense of certainty that everyone will pull together for the school and the Halt family. She said the students reacted to the announcement by wanting to know about Afghanistan. Their questions were less about politics and more about what he would be doing and how it would help the people of that country.
Ms. Boyd said that Mr. Halt made it a point to visit each class and answer each question. He did his best to make it very matter of fact so it would not be distracting, she said.
Ms. Boyd said Mr. Halt embodies the concept of service. “I think that what he wants the kids to take from this is that everyone needs to do their part and when there is a problem you try to fix it and when there is a need you try to fill it and that is what he is doing and that is what he wants them to keep doing.”
In his conversations with students and faculty, Mr. Halt stressed that he had the easy job and it was his family – his wife, Laurie, and his stepchildren, Cooper, Connor, and Maggie Johnson – that had the tough one. “I don’t know how many of us would say that going to Afghanistan is the easy job,” Ms. Boyd said.
Mr. Halt told the students he would be back again to visit in January before he leaves the country.
“It is not going to be an easy thing, it never is,” Ms. Boyd said. “But I think there is a very strong feeling of, we will come together as a faculty, as a school community and as a larger Island community, as we do for so many or our men and women in service and say, we are here to support not only those who are serving but those who have to function in their absence.”