By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 9, 2011 - When Army Staff Sgt. Hayford Owusu deployed to Afghanistan in April, he knew he'd be gone for a major milestone -- his son's high school graduation. So he offered his son, Prince, two options: he would take leave to attend the graduation ceremony, or he would travel with his son to their birthplace of Ghana upon his return.
Owusu is among the deployed military parents from bases across Europe and the Pacific who will be able to watch their teenagers graduate from high school via live webcast.
"I know he can't make it, so being able to watch it online is a fantastic idea," said Prince, a senior and soon-to-be honor graduate from Baumholder Middle-High School in Germany. "It means a lot to me. I'm glad he can see me graduate."
About 60 parents deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations around the world have been invited to watch 12 graduation ceremonies taking place on bases in Germany, Italy and England through June 14, thanks to a cooperative effort between Department of Defense Dependents Schools Europe, U.S. Army Europe and the U.S. Army 5th Signal Command.
Additionally, several schools in the Pacific will offer a live webcast of their graduation ceremonies this year through "an entirely homegrown effort," a Department of Defense Education Activity official said. Staff and student volunteers from DOD schools in Japan, Guam and South Korea are launching this pilot program in hopes of expanding on it in future years.
At Baumholder, about 80 percent of the students' parents are deployed, but nearly all were able to take leave to attend graduation this year, said Danny Robinson, the school's principal. Just two students, with Prince being one, will have a parent deployed during the ceremony.
But that doesn't make the effort any less significant, noted Nancy Bresell, director of Department of Defense Dependents Schools Europe.
"It's so important to the students that their parents are part of a really big event in their lives," she said. "That's why we do what we do and why military services have been supporting this for so long."
This effort to connect deployed parents with their graduating teens in Europe dates back eight years, Bresell explained, citing the extensive work that goes on behind the scenes.
Planning starts months in advance, when high school officials identify which seniors will have a deployed parent on graduation night, she said, followed by an effort to notify the parent about the upcoming broadcast.
The school system then takes on a back-seat role, as the services step in to provide the technology and the people to set up the webcasts, Bresell said.
"It's a gargantuan effort on their part – the work, time and cost," she said. "There's no question that without their efforts, we couldn't do this."
As an added measure, many students record messages to their parents beforehand that are broadcast with the ceremony, Bresell said, noting the messages tend to have a common theme.
"The kids let their parents know how much they love them, how important they are to them, and how they wish they could be here to see them walk across that stage," she said. "They're usually cheerful, but kids choke up as they're giving them."
Some deployed parents also record messages for their kids, she said, and "that's very touching as well."
The feedback from deployed parents has been overwhelmingly positive, Bresell said. "They're thankful for this effort and the fact they were able to see their kids on such an important occasion," she added.
Robinson, who has been the Baumholder principal for six years, recalled his school's graduation two years ago, when students were heavily affected by a large-scale deployment to Iraq. The base set up a two-way video teleconference at graduation so students could wave to their parents as they crossed the stage and their parents could wave back and cheer them on. School officials also tucked a personal message from deployed parents to their student into the diploma covers.
"There were a lot of tears," he said. "It was a very emotional time."
These types of extra efforts aren't surprising, Bresell said. The military has made a priority to keep deployed service members in touch with their families.
"It's all about the kids and the families," she said. "We'll do whatever it takes and whatever we can to bring them together for such an important event in a child's life -- probably the single most important event."
The following graduations in Europe and the Pacific will be broadcast online:
-- Today: Ansbach, Bamberg and Heidelberg High Schools in Germany;
-- Tomorrow: Baumholder, Hohenfels and Kaiserslautern High Schools in Germany; Lakenheath High School in England; Vicenza High School in Italy; Guam High School in Guam; Edgren High School in Japan; and Daegu American School in South Korea;
-- June 11: Bitburg and Mannheim High Schools in Germany and Kubasaki High School in Japan;
-- June 12: Wiesbaden High School in Germany; and
-- June 14: Ramstein High School in Germany.
To watch a graduation, family and friends can get access information from their graduating senior or local Defense Department school. Along with the webcast, the Pacific ceremonies will be recorded and available for on-demand viewing next week.
Department of Defense Dependents Schools Europe
Department of Defense Education Activity Pacific
Department of Defense Education Activity
Baumholder Middle-High School