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Pepper Raines has taught at Auburn Middle for seven years. Now, at 33, Raines is leaving teaching to become the student -- in the United States Army.
Monday, May 27, 2013
RINER — Like many teachers, Pepper Raines is looking forward to a little travel and some new experiences this summer. Unlike most educators, however, Raines will be on an all-expense-paid trip courtesy of Uncle Sam.
After seven years at Auburn Middle School — and at age 33 — Raines is walking away from teaching and marching into full-time service with the United States Army.
On July 1, Raines plans to leave for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where she is scheduled to graduate Sept. 12 and immediately travel to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, to learn how to be a health care specialist, which includes combat medic training.
“I have always wanted to do the military, ever since probably middle school, and I thought, I don’t want to have any regrets, I need to do it now if I’m going to do it,” Raines said.
Following her 1998 graduation from Christiansburg High School, Raines said she studied agriculture at Virginia Tech, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2002 and a master’s degree in 2004.
After college, she said she worked briefly as a soil conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before returning to school in order to become a licensed teacher.
“I loved my agriculture field and thought if I can share that with kids and get them interested in that, that was my motivation for teaching,” Raines said.
In 2006, Raines took a horticulture position at Auburn Middle School, where she taught students ranging from sixth to eighth grade and often had students in her class for all three years of their middle school careers.
During her teaching career, she also was active in school athletics and did stints as a cross country, softball and volleyball coach for Montgomery County schools in both the Christiansburg and Auburn strands.
Though she enjoyed her work with young people, Raines said the desire to join the armed forces never escaped her, which she in part credited to the service of her father, John Raines.
“My dad was in the Army. There’s always been a pride with that serving in the military. I’ve always thought of it as just such a great thing to do to serve your country,” she said.
After years of talking herself out of enlisting, last summer Raines said she finally decided it was now or never and visited the Christiansburg Army recruiting office.
John Raines, who served with the Army in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, said that moment was the first he’d ever heard of his daughter’s interest in the military.
“It was kind of a shock, but ain’t nothing surprised me with her before,” John Raines said.
Pepper Raines began working out weekly with the recruiters’ Future Soldiers program, which aims to help future soldiers become familiar with common Army tasks and training prior to basic training, and officially enlisted in November.
As word of her decision spread, Raines said she received a variety of reactions, especially from her own gender.
“It’s mixed. Usually it’s the females that are like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But then I also have females that say that it’s wonderful,” Raines said.
High school and college classmate Shane Guynn said he was surprised at first to learn of Raines’ decision, despite remembering a brief mention of her military desire right after the two graduated from Tech.
Since that point, Guynn, who is Christiansburg High School’s cross country coach, said he could tell the Army was the right path for his friend.
“She’s been so passionate. … You can just see her heart is fully into it. She’s bought in 100 percent,” Guynn said.
Raines said her students also provided a mixed response to the news.
“They’re definitely sad that I’m going to leave, but a lot of them, especially the guys, think it’s very cool that I’m going into the Army,” Raines said.
One of Raines’ former students at Auburn Middle School, Montana Hill, said she was torn on how to feel about the teacher who, Hill said, “made everything fun” leaving the profession.
“I had wished that other people would get to know her since she was such a good teacher, but I also knew this was what she wanted, so I was also happy,” Hill said.
One area where there seems to be no divide in opinion over Raines’ decision is in the Christiansburg Army recruiting office.
“This is going to be easy for her,” Staff Sgt. Terrance Ford said. “Her head’s in the right place. She’s motivated, she’s in shape, she doesn’t complain.”
Ford said he and Sgt. 1st Class Ionna Peterman had been working with Raines through the Future Soldiers program for close to a year, and while a 33-year-old enlisting wasn’t unheard of — the Army cutoff is currently 35 — it was definitely far from the norm.
“Everybody’s [military recruiters’] target age is 17 to 24,” Ford said.
Ford said he believed the near decade age gap would likely be Raines’ toughest challenge.
“Her hardest part will have nothing to do with the Army. Her hardest part is going to be at 33 years old being around a bunch of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds,” Ford said.
Despite her recruiters’ warnings of the immaturity she might encounter among her fellow soldiers, Raines said she’s confident.
“You got to understand, I’m used to being with middle schoolers. It’s going to be fine,” Raines said.
Raines added that she believes the patience and leadership skills she learned through teaching will pay dividends in her future career.
Peterman said some of those skills have already shown up just within the ranks of the Future Soldiers Program.
“She’s a great motivator for the group of all the future soldiers. She has helped a lot of them drop their run times and get better physically, and she gives them a lot of advice as well,” Peterman said.
As an avid runner and veteran of six half-marathons, Raines sets an example for physical fitness.
“She’s a beast,” said Justin Mollette, a fellow Army enlistee who trains with Raines.
The 18-year-old Eastern Montgomery High School graduate added that despite Raines’ ability to take off on a run, she was always there to help a fellow solder who had fallen behind.
Ford added it’s a common sight to see Raines leave the group’s workout and head directly to the Christiansburg Recreation Center to spend another hour and half on a treadmill.
While Raines doesn’t believe her age will cause problems with younger troops, she does think her 33 years will be the source of her greatest challenge.
“For me at this age, I’ve been so independent. You know you go and do what you want, but not there. Your schedule is planned out for you every day,” Raines said.
John Raines had a little advice for his daughter on the subject, based on his own Army experience.
“Just do what they tell you to do, that’s the thing. … You don’t talk back in the Army,” John Raines said.
Aside from the loss of freedom, Raines is very much looking forward to other aspects of her new career.
“Getting to go different places is probably going to be one of the best parts of it. … Missouri is where my basic training is. I’ve never been to Missouri. I’m going to San Antonio, Texas, for my medical training. I’ve never been to Texas,” Raines said.
She added she was also looking forward to the camaraderie she has heard develops between troops during their training.
Along with new places and new friends, Raines will also be taking up an entirely new career by entering the medical field, which she said was because of her desire to help those doing the “brunt of the work.”
“These guys who are really giving all they have in risking their lives, that I would be helping them, that was my motivation,” Raines said.
That desire to help others may very well be the strongest tie between Raines’ past and dramatically different future.
“I feel like these seven years have been great. I’ve enjoyed it and hope I’ve been able to teach these kids and help them in some way, and I wanted to go into another field where I was helping another group of people,” Raines said.
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