Sabrina a VFP Chicago member was interviewed in this article for The Nation about her work to stop the JROTC program in schools. To read the full article click here.
“One of those people was Sabrina Waller. On the day in March 1998 that she learned her father had killed another gang member as an act of retaliation, Waller decided she couldn’t stay in Chicago any longer. Due to financial constraints, receiving a college education seemed out of reach, but, in fact, no one had ever told her about the possibility of qualifying for financial aid. Although she had no interest in JROTC or the military during her high-school years, she was desperate for any solution that would remove her from the cycle of poverty and violence around her home. It was during this time a friend convinced her to join the Navy. “The military will take you away from Chicago,” she recalls him saying. “You’ll live a new life and be around new people.” She enlisted two weeks after the incident and the following year was sent to Kosovo. She was 21 years old.
As a plane captain in training, Waller helped maintain Navy planes on the flight deck of aircraft carriers. She witnessed the jets carrying 500-pound bombs in their bellies before taking flight; without exception, they came back empty. “You can’t return to the ship with a bomb,” Waller explains. “It’s too dangerous to land.” The bombs had to be dispatched even without an enemy target to drop them on. Occasionally, she would see videos of the aftermath. One particular instance has stuck with her: A bomb was intentionally dropped on a truck crossing a bridge in enemy territory, obliterating the vehicle and everyone in it. When Waller began to question these tactics and worried that innocent lives were unjustly being destroyed, her senior shipmates ignored her pleas. “I was told to shut up and not question things and just do my job,” Waller recalls. She now suffers from leg injuries and a neurological disorder causing daily migraines so overpowering they prevent her from living a normal life. But it is the moral pain that has been the most damaging for her. “There’s blood on my hands,” she says.
“I don’t think that if people fully understood what it’s like to be in war, they would choose to go,” observes Rick Jahnkow of YANO. His organization focuses on presenting students with other options suited for their career interests, including non-military opportunities to receive financial aid toward higher education. “We want them to consider whether engaging in those activities is justification for getting financial aid through the military,” he adds.
Sabrina Waller now dedicates her life to sharing her experience with students in the hope that she might prevent them from making the same mistake she did. “I feel like I’ve walked in the shoes that many in the JROTC program will walk in,” Waller says. “They think the military is the only way out of poverty, of not being educated, of not really having a purpose in life, and the only way out of living in depressing communities.”
That doesn’t have to be the case, she tells any young person who will listen. As part of the group Veterans for Peace, Waller looks for opportunities to speak in classrooms around Chicago. These can be rare, however, as many teachers are reluctant to offer students a perspective that doesn’t align with the conventional honor-and-glory narrative of military service.
“I would love to see a resistance movement among the students,” Waller says. “Once we understand the power of people fighting back, we see that it doesn’t always have to be this way.”