For Military Kids, War Is Daily Reality

Reminders that America is still very much at war are everywhere in Killeen, Texas, unlike many American towns.

It's not just Fourth of July patriotism that has red, white and blue decorating Killeen -- it's the town's proximity to Fort Hood, the most populated U.S. military base in the country.

In Killeen, more families than not have relatives serving in Iraq, and almost 90 percent of the students at Shoemaker High School have parents who are deployed. The story of these unsung heroes has gone largely untold.

Watch "Nightline's" full report on a special Independence Day edition Tuesday at 11:35 p.m. ET.

Consider the eldest offspring of Lt. Col. Eugene Daniels, now out of Iraq but still serving in Kuwait.

Daniels' 17-year-old son, Eugene Daniels Jr., is a star football player at Shoemaker High School in Killeen and a top student with a handful of scholarships to colleges, including West Point.

For young men like Eugene, though, a father at war means trying to fill some really big shoes at home.

"Ever since I was little -- when he first started getting deployed -- it was always, 'Now you're the man of the house.' And, you know, I'm the only boy," he said. "That's my job. My dad's gone. I have to step it up. I'm not gonna cry about it. I'm just gonna do what I have to do."

Shoemaker's veteran guidance counselor Barbara Critchfield said she gets an earful daily of students' battles with everyday life.

"You give up a lot of your childhood. It's gone overnight," Critchfield said, adding, "I can't even begin to tell you what they give up. The kids aren't on the front line, but they're fighting. They're fighting it, too."

Then there's Shatonna Jones, 17, a cheerleader at Shoemaker whose father serves in Iraq with a dangerous mission.

"He works with mines," Shatonna said calmly, but with her eyes filling with tears. "As much as I can say that he's going to be OK, who guarantees me that? Nobody. So I don't know if he's going to come back OK. I don't know if somebody's gonna call and say, 'Your dad didn't make it.'"

Adding to her daily worry for her father's safety, Shatonna's mother has been ill with kidney failure and she has two younger siblings. She and the younger children said that their mother helped keep them going but that Shoemaker was their refuge.

Honoring Soldiers and Families

In an effort to recognize the unique situation that the school's students live in, Critchfield and others at Shoemaker have lined the school's halls with 2,000 blue and silver stars -- the school's colors -- honoring each soldier serving abroad and his or her child's name. Because they ran out of room, 1,000 stars are still waiting to be hung.

For Shoemaker counselors, Critchfield said, it's about much more than just class schedules and college applications -- it's helping these kids make it through really hard times.

"We can't fix it. We just try to make it … bearable," she said. "Just have to be there for them because sometimes they don't have anybody else."

The wishing and worrying never seem to end for some students. A good day is a day when Dad is able to call. Eugene was able to talk to his dad when he called his family from Kuwait on Father's Day. Shatonna, however, hears from her father less frequently, and that adds to the anxiety and worry.

Despite the hardship, these military kids refuse to feel sorry for themselves and refuse to give up.

"I can't wait to succeed," Shatonna said. "To go through all this and know that I succeeded."

Eugene said, "It's like the reward at the end of the tunnel. Like, it's there. And we're actually almost there, because we just got college to go through, and then we're there. And that's what's so great about going through it."

The Ultimate Sacrifice

As IED explosions and insurgent attacks continue in Iraq, the absence of a phone call can make the worry worse. It's the knock on the door, however, that every military kid dreads.

For 15-year-old Megan Nelom, the news that her 46-year-old father, Staff Sgt. Regilio Nelom, had been killed in a roadside bomb in Iraq came in the middle of the night.

"I was asleep but kept hearing knocking," Megan said. "I opened the door. There were two soldiers there. I didn't know what was going on, and they were like, 'Is your mom home?' Because, you know, on TV they show it all the time and things like that. And I was like, 'Oh my God, no.' I just started crying."

Megan's father had been in Iraq just three months when he was killed. "I think he just bled to death," his daughter said. Besides Megan, he left behind his wife, Cynthia, and a daughter, Breen, 11.

Before he left for Iraq, her father sat Megan down and gave her precise instructions.

"He told me to take care of my mom and my sister, and I was like, 'What are you talking about? I'm confused. You're coming back. I'm telling you, you're coming back.'"

"And so he said, 'Take care of your mom. Take care of your sister. You're the oldest, you know, be strong for them and everything if something happens to me.' I told him, 'I'm scared. Something might happen to you. I'm scared. What if?'"

Megan's mother knows how difficult it has been for her eldest daughter.

"When he died, I think she was kind of confused, thinking she really thought that she had to take care of us and be the strong one in the family," she said to "Nightline."

"And I had to talk to her and tell her to let go."

Critchfield recalled how amazed she was at Megan's composure during the initial days after her father's death.

"She got up to speak at her dad's memorial service," she said. "And she said before her father died, he sat down and told her there's no better way to die than dying for your country, and if something happens to me, just know that I am in a better place, and you and your mom, you all will be just fine. And he said, 'I don't want you to mourn my death. I want you to celebrate my life.'"

In Megan's bedroom is a portrait of her father in military fatigues. It's hung at the foot of her bed in direct view "so he can watch over me."

"I still have lots of things to do," she said. "I still have to get married, you know. I still have to graduate from high school and graduate from college and everything. I want to know why? Why now? Why him?"

The ultimate sacrifice paid by the Nelom family is evident in the purple heart and other war medals now lining a glass case in its home.

It is at Shoemaker High School, though, that Megan's personal sacrifice is honored.

Among the seven gold stars hanging above the main entrance, marking each soldier killed, is one for Staff Sgt. Regilio Nelom and his daughter, Megan.

When Mom Deploys

Cassy Gillinger is "Mom" to Amanda, 17, and Joe Jr., 15, but she is also an Army private first class of Alpha Company 204th.

Deployed to Iraq in 2005, she recently returned home for two weeks' R&R. Her daughter is a straight-A student at Shoemaker who was voted best cadet in ROTC this year.

Yet, she said, she has no desire to join the military; she wants to be a doctor. As with many teens with a parent serving abroad, Amanda has had to assume new responsibilities.

"I have more responsibilities now that she's not here," she said. "I have to make sure my family stays fed. I have to make sure that my brother behaves himself. Dad does a lot of it, but there are some things that only girls can do."

Saying goodbye to a family member is something that military kids have to do more than other kids. Sometimes, these goodbyes are heavy burdens.

"I just wanted to be mad," Amanda said. "You know, when she asked me to do something before she left, I was hateful. … And I felt so bad, like, why'd I do that? I didn't need to do that. And after she left, I kept thinking to myself what had I done and what have I done."

Even though life at school may continue as normal, life at home can change drastically.

"A couple weeks after she left, I'd come home and be like, 'Ma,' and I'd forget," Amanda said. "I mean, you go to school and it's normal, and you think everything's normal, and then you come home and she's not here, and that's the hardest part."

It's during the main events of a teenager's life when Amanda misses her mother the most.

"She wasn't there for my 16th birthday. She was in basic training," she said. "She wasn't there for my 17th birthday. She was in Iraq. She wasn't there for prom-military ball. She hasn't been there for a lot of things in the last two years."

For Cassy Gillinger, leaving is just as tough.

"They are always wondering if you are OK," she said. "And if something happens and you don't call, they are like, 'Oh my gosh, why didn't they call?' So for all the families over there, that's the price we pay."

On deployment day, her daughter wore a T-shirt to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, stating, "My hero wears combat boots" because, she said, her mother is her hero, and she wanted her to know that.

One of the hardest parts of deployment, Amanda said, is watching her mom walk onto the plane.

"She was just marching off, and I was thinking to myself, 'I could have hugged her one last time and I didn't.'"

Weeping, she stared out the window onto the tarmac and the plane her mother was boarding.

"I wonder what's gonna happen if she doesn't come back," she said. " And, you know, I don't really know what I would do."