We thought for years our son would be involved in law enforcement. All of his games and movies and books revolved around the good guys protecting the innocent from the bad guys. One day when he was 16 I said, “well, you graduate in about a year and a half, have you given more thought to what kind of career you want to pursue?” He gave me a very steady gaze and clearly said, “Yes, I want to be a Marine. I want to be an infantryman.” Wow. I did not see that coming!
I gulped and said, “OK, are you sure about the Marines? How about Army, Navy, Air Force? Coast Guard? We love all five branches of the service around here, ya know.” The boy turned his nose up at all of them.
“Hmmm. How about the Reserves? You can still be a Marine, but as a reservist,” I said. “Daddy, it’s full-time active duty all the way as a Marine … or nothing!” OK, I knew my son well enough to know when his mind was made up. I said, “All right then, when you are 17 in a month, you can sign up with the signature of one parent. But you know how it works in our family … ya gotta get the signature of TWO parents. So, you have to have this conversation with Mom.”
And so he did. When my wife heard him out, she said, “Well, I knew this when you came out of the womb. You’ve always been the warrior of the family. You were born for this. Let’s go.” And so we went together as a family to go see the Marine recruiter.
That was over six years ago. He served well, earned the Combat Action Ribbon, became a sergeant, and safely came home (thank God). He has learned and we have learned. So, for any parents who are about to go through this, here are just a few tips to help your son or daughter in their service in the US military.
1. Tell them the truth.
Life is not the movie. Whatever “moto” (“motivational”) movies you see … life ain’t like that. At all. War is not glorious, and not all wounds heal.
The US military, as fine as it is, is still just a slice of society … and you get all kinds in there. Not everyone is Audie Murphy or Chris Kyle or whoever your hero is. There are wonderful people there, and there are people who will stab you in the back. And there are plenty of people who are just sort of in between … depending on the day of the week, sometimes.
You are signing up to serve for several years. You will have days you hate. You cannot back out of this. You will have to stick to it.
It is the job of the recruiters to sell. We liked the recruiters. We had them over to eat with us. But we also asked many probing questions. I don’t believe they lied to us, but I think sometimes they did not have all the correct information. Some of the things they said would happen didn’t happen. Make sure your son or daughter knows that all that glitters is not gold.
2. Ask about alternatives.
What if they don’t get in the military? What if there is an accident and they are forced out of the military? What is Plan B? Someone told me years ago, “Always have a back-up.”
Great, you want to be a mechanic in the Air Force or fire Tomahawk cruise missiles in the Navy or be an Army Ranger. That’s all wonderful! But what if it doesn’t happen? What are your back-up plans? Have a plan A, B, C, and maybe even a D.
3. Be there for him or her.
I don’t mean we should be “helicopter parents” It’s kinda hard for parents to hang around a military base anyway, but be there emotionally, verbally (on the phone or social media), and physically whenever it is a really important event. We were with our son right up until the time he went off to Parris Island.
Man, those thirteen weeks of basic training were awful for the parents too! But we sure loved those letters, and he kept all the ones we sent him. What a proud day it was when the whole family was there, cheering him on at his graduation! Then off to the School of Infantry where we saw a brief graduation ceremony a few months later.
I think one of the worst days of our lives was the day he and his company were deployed. It was our wedding anniversary! But we stayed up all night in the parking lot of Camp LeJeune with the hundreds of Marines and all the other families.
What shocked me was that so many of the Marines … these 18 year old men … were ALONE! Their parents were not there! Where were they? Many of these young men just “gravitated” over to my wife and me and hung around us, quietly laughing and joking and talking about whatever … until the trucks and buses arrived as the sun came up. Everyone said their final good-byes, the sergeants and officers counted off the weapons for the last time, and the Marines got on the buses.
No one among all the families cried in the parking lot as the Marines drove away. We all silently walked to our cars. Then the dam burst once we got inside and drove home.
Be there for them. What a wonderful day it was when, six months later, they all came home! It was 3 in the morning, and it was freezing, but hundreds of families were there cheering when all the Marines came marching up the street.
I know that not everyone reading this can have this joy — because their loved one did not come home alive or well. But in this particular instance, all the Marines and sailors who shipped out with that company came home alive. Some wounded, but all were alive.
4. Don’t call their commanding officer.
I just now asked my son, “Hey what would you tell all the parents out there if you had to do it all over again?” He said, “Do NOT EVER call the commanding officer. That will REALLY get that member of the military in deeper hot water.”
He heard all kinds of horror stories about concerned Moms and Dads calling the Colonel, or trying to call the Colonel, about some problem. Don’t. Leave them alone. Your son or daughter has to learn how to handle these problems on their own. And you will only make it worse.
5. Send good care packages.
My son added this one too. Even if your children are not on a battlefield, they still might be training out in the California desert for a month or two. Send ’em a package. Or they are in an embassy or at a naval base in Italy or Japan. They would LOVE to get some things that they can only get from home!
Mom makes the BEST cookies, right? No “store bought” can compare. So send those! And I would send candy and paperback books and funny cards (Santa Claus hats at Christmas time were always a hit!). Whatever … you know your kids and you know what would thrill them and lift their spirits.
6. Let them vent.
Let your children vent and complain while they are on the phone. It is a soldier’s right to complain. They are waking up to the things you warned them about. And venting is sometimes therapeutic.
They need to hear Dad or Mom’s wisdom and comfort on how to bear it. I think we can bear almost any kind of irritation or frustration if we have trusted friends who will listen. Be that listening ear, and be careful about offering advice.
7. Pray for the best and prepare for the worst.
Nothing can really prepare you for the worst. I know, my son did not get killed, so whom am I to offer this advice? I am no one special. But I have personally visited Gold Star Parents. I have sat in the den of a Dad whose son was killed in Iraq many years ago … and mourned and wept with him.
With that scene in my mind, I sat on the porch of my house and talked to my 18 year old son about funeral arrangements should he not come back alive. He told me what he wanted. I agreed to all he said.
We have to face reality — the moment our kids put on the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard, they are targets. The battlefield is not just in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is Ft. Hood, or the recruiting station in Chattanooga, or a U.S. embassy. Many also die in training accidents. We must talk about this very real possibility. And plan accordingly.
And if they are wounded … let them know that there is no doubt that you will be there for them, in their corner constantly. You will move heaven and earth to get them the health care they need.
8. Help them transition out of the military.
As the time approaches for your children’s exit from the military, help them make that transition. What kind of jobs are they looking for? Where will they live? Do they need help moving?
When our son got out, he had a job lined up (thankfully), and we helped him pack up a moving truck and get his stuff there. Our home is a port in a storm for all our kids if they need it, but they are adults now, and they need to make plans to live on their own. Thankfully, they do.
In my opinion, the U.S. military is a great, time-honored institution of our great nation. It can be a great step up for many, teaching good skills and work habits, if people apply themselves. But it has its share of flaws, like any institution.
With parents having the back of their sons and daughters, their time in the service can be a very rewarding experience for themselves and our nation.