Mirandi calls her time at the academy "life-altering," and a good deal of the inspiration came from mingling with the host. "When we got to meet Phil, it was obvious how passionate he is about education," she says. "He talked about how math and science are what keep American industry strong and allow us to compete with other countries. People like to say that children are our future, but Phil and his wife are actually making a real investment in them."
After returning from the academy Mirandi had the gumption to apply for a presidential teaching award; when she won, she used some of her prize money to invest in her iPad. She is the vice president--elect for the South Carolina Science Council and is also involved in a review of the state's science curriculum. "I feel it's my duty to take an active role and try to make a difference," she says.
Even as Mirandi effects change on the macro level, she continues to stimulate the kids in her class. "When Miss Squires says we're going to do a new lesson, we don't moan and groan, we're happy, because we know she is going to make it fun," says Lee Ann Tanner, a little pixie who says she wants to be a pharmacist.
"I didn't like math or science until I came to her class," says Sarah Baxley, an aspiring nurse. "Now they're my favorite subjects."
Mirandi tends to get misty at such testimonials. "Well, bless their little hearts," she coos. But for all the gentility of this Southern belle, she is not afraid to get her hands dirty in the name of science. After all, someone has to look after the worms in the compost bin.
On June 27, 2006, under a blinding midday sun, a convoy of U.S. Army vehicles rumbled out of Contingency Operating Base Rawa, in Iraq's Al Anbar province. The mission was to eradicate an insurgent cell that was operating out of a safe house on the banks of the Euphrates River.
Staff Sgt. Jacque (Jake) Keeslar was manning a 50-caliber machine gun from the gunner's hatch of a Stryker, an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle. He was 36 and had traveled a winding path to Iraq.
Growing up in the ski town of Big Bear Lake, Calif., Jake had been a self-described "screw-off," and he enlisted in the 82nd Airborne in 1990 because "I thought it would be cool to jump out of airplanes." The structured environment of the Army suited him. At 23 he got married and then welcomed a daughter, Joy. When the marriage fell apart, around the turn of the century, Jake relocated to the Northern Warfare Training Center at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks, Alaska. A skilled mountaineer, he taught enlistees cold-weather survival tactics and the art of telemark skiing. In the summer he instructed soldiers in rock climbing. Jake began wooing Vanessa Morrison, a ginger-haired beauty he had nursed a crush on for 15 years, going back to ninth grade. They married in 2002, and they were always dreaming about the future. Jake resolved to put in his 20 years in the Army, which would mean a nice pension. He never expected to go to war, but by '06 he was sleeping in a tent in the desert. Al Anbar was what Jake calls "the wild west of Iraq," a region in which teens were routinely paid $100 to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the roadways. Yet Jake felt he was doing meaningful work, training the Iraqi army and police force.
Naturally, the hardest part was being away from Vanessa. Yet even a world away and having to go an agonizing three weeks between phone calls, they felt connected. "We're not religious but we're very spiritual," says Jake. "Rolling through the desert, I always felt it didn't matter whether we turned right or left because my path was already determined. That freed me up to do my job because it took away the fear of death." A few hours before Jake's unit left for the raid on the safe house, he reached Vanessa by phone. She ended the call with her usual bit of advice: "Keep your head down." Recently, she added a rueful postscript: "I should have said, Keep your legs up."