Other mothers ask me how our older son is doing with both concern and a touch of envy. I tell them he is fine and loves the work he has chosen. They smile and hesitate. Their own views on the military always tend to surface right about here in the conversation, and I usually give them an easy way out and say something like, “It can be rough having a son in the military, but we’re very proud of him.” and leave it there. They sigh and smile and turn away.
Recently, my husband and I went down to Fort Benning, Georgia for our son’s most recent graduation ceremony as an army officer. It made me realize how many mile-stones there have been along the road to this moment: small moments during his Civil Air Patrol days (which he joined on his 12th birthday telling us that the forty dollar fee for joining was the only thing he wanted for his birthday) when he would proudly come out of the little airport hanger that was their “headquarters” with a new badge to sew onto his CAP uniform “blouse” that was always achingly big for his slender body. From there it was ROTC and the ceremony marking his choice to be a commissioned officer (his early, bigger-to-me choice to commit to ROTC in his sophomore year of college went unheralded and was mentioned only in passing…, “Oh yeah, that.”). All the way through summer programs, commendations, airborne training completion to this most recent marker – being trained to command a platoon. A platoon . . .
As I sit behind all the closely trimmed heads of the graduates I realize I have no idea which one belongs to our son. I doubt his Dad could point him out either. As the commander speaks about the graduate’s service and hard work and readiness to assume command I feel almost numb. I have told myself I will not cry at this ceremony – my son would hate that. But the other option is to simply listen to the words and try to keep the image, persistently trying to push its way into my consciousness, of what this graduation actually means at bay.
As a college professor and, earlier, a dorm parent at a college prep school, I have sat through more graduations than I can remember. In my role as college faculty, I smile and nod as students march awkwardly across the stage. Many are going on to careers that involve business or teaching or some science-related work, or (ever popular) more school. But these young men who are filing past me in strictly disciplined rows, staring straight ahead are looking at a very different future, a future that involves a level of responsibility and maturity that most fifty year olds would balk at, and fall short. A future that involves life and death decisions on a bad day, and decisions involving million dollar equipment and men’s and women’s well-being (physical and emotional) on the good days. Their level of commitment and ability staggers the mind. As I sit there I remember that exactly one summer ago we had made our first trip to Georgia for this son’s airborne training graduation. As I managed to extract some of the training that had occurred during those six weeks I was almost disbelieving. I work with terrific young people every day. They are good people -- hard workers and smart. But when I heard what had been expected of these cadets and all the other enlisted soldiers and commissioned officers during airborne training I was blown away. “How can they ask that of you?” I would say in astonishment to my son. He would look at me with his half smile and say, “It’s airborne training Mom.” as if that explained it all. And for him, it did.
The level of commitment and individual willingness to do this sort of work reminds me of my husband’s high school wrestling days. He explained to me years ago that during training he would wake up in the middle of the night and think,”Someone, somewhere is doing push-ups.” He meant his competition and it would cause him to get out of bed in his freezing cold room and do push-ups until he couldn’t do any more. In a bigger way that is what these soldiers are being asked to do. To train as hard as possible, even though they don’t know who or what they will be fighting. That way, when they do know they will also know that they did all they could to prepare. To be ready to lead their platoons and companies and battalions and brigades into situations that no one can actually foresee, and whose outcome no one can possibly foretell. And that is where the thought I push away comes back. The specter every parent has of their child, their darling son (or daughter these days), caught in a place no one ever wants their child to be. My son knows my concerns and does his best to downplay the danger, the possible battle situations he might be called on to engage in, but I am no fool. I know, -- we all do -- some more than others. As I sit with a few of my son’s friends at a party after the ceremony I realize that many of their parents have served in the military. I wonder if that makes it harder or easier for them; to know that both honor and the horror could be in their child’s future. My ignorance of such things both shields me and probably makes me imagine more than I should. As we say our good byes I hear my husband telling one of the incredibly impressive young men we have been eating with, “Getting to know all of you gives me hope for the future.” It doesn’t sound like my husband, he is unfailingly optimistic but has always been a bit skeptical of the military, but I know how he feels. In a time in our history that looks like our nation is falling into the kind of moral and ethical disarray it is very hard to come back from, these young officers carry a heavy load on their shoulders, the load of honor, of character, of extreme sacrifice. They may not all have the “right stuff” but enough of them do that I can trust my son’s welfare in their hands, and theirs in his. To know that, deep down, each of them believes they are “their brother’s keeper” and will do all they can to save and protect. This thought enables me to bid my son farewell without crying and without regretting his choice. To leave, in fact, with a strong sense of gratitude to the men and women who could be succeeding in any career they chose, but instead have chosen this . . . to serve their country.