“Before I joined the army, I wanted to be a social studies teacher,” explained Torres, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and graduates from the Steinhardt School’s Department of Teaching and Learning. “I knew I would eventually be studying and teaching about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I wanted to be a part of it because it would give me a first-hand perspective that I could bring into the classroom.”
Torres joined the military in 2002, a year after graduating from Brookyn’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School. Torres, whose father is from Mexico and mother from El Salvador, also felt joining the military would cement his identity as an American.
“By serving, I earned my family’s future generations the right to be Americans,” he said.
Torres was in the 101st Airborne Division, with tours of duty in Iraq from August 2003 to February 2004 and September 2005 to 2006.
“During my first tour, I felt some of the other soldiers were disconnected from the ‘hearts and minds’ approach of winning over the Iraqi people,” recalled Torres, who earned an associate’s degree from CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College before transferring to NYU through Steinhardt’s Community College Transfer Opportunity Program in 2009. “I felt sorry for the Iraqi people during the tour—we’d search people’s homes and go through their belongings. I had this sense of ‘Sorry’ on the way out.”
For his second tour, Torres was sent to a more hostile region—Hawijiah, also known as the “mini-Fallujah.”
“The insurgency was in the full force,” Torres noted, adding there were 10 deaths in his company of 70 soldiers. “I was more afraid than anything. I truly believed that something was going to happen to me–that I would be wounded or killed. Unfortunately, I simply went into survival mode and had no interest in building relationships with locals.”
Torres has used the range of military experience to bolster classroom discussions atMiddle School 131 in Chinatown, where he is a student teacher. The question guiding his class’s current unit is: Do American actions abroad reflect American ideals?
“We’re using the Afghanistan War and the Vietnam War to answer this question,” he explained. “I encourage my students to weigh both sides of this complicated debate. I have allowed the students to use me as one of their many primary sources in addition to the plethora of other sources we provide. They’ll ask: Did you believe in the mission?”
Thinking back to his first tour of duty, Torres said, “Whatever reservations I may have had about the invasion of Iraq, my attitude was, ‘We are here and need to try to do the best we can.’ I felt we could make a difference in that country.”
(Photos: Kevin Torres, Middle School 131)