Author’s note: I wrote this back in August of 2007 under the title In the Company of Men on the eve of my son’s departure for Basic Training. He is currently on his 2nd Afghan deployment and has just re-enlisted and been promoted to Sergeant. I could not be more proud of him and his comrades. For me, every day is Memorial Day…
The house is very dark and very quiet all around me. It is also missing something that has been here for the last 19 years, my oldest son.
Last night, The Much Younger Trophy Wife and I, my in-laws and a gaggle of family and friends gathered together in a private area of a local eaterie and said our good-byes.
I can still see the bounce in his step as he walked away and something in me yearns for the confidence born of ignorance that only the young possess. He was headed on an adventure. He was headed out of our lives and embracing, in so many ways, the very beginning of his own. He was leaving his past and headed for his future. He’d joined the US Army and was reporting for duty.
The parking lot around us had just a smattering of cars. The loading area where we dropped him off seemed filled with all the government vans ever purchased. The hotel housed a number of young men and women on their last night as civilians. I supppose that’s technically not true since they had all already signed their names and raised their hands, pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic a couple of days before. But it’s how I saw it.
My son had met another young man from Clarksville at MEPS. His family had already dropped him off and returned home. He had nothing to do for the several hours he had left and so my son brought him along for the evening. The other young man’s story was similar. He was young and headed off for his own adventure. He talked about his service, his plans for the future and how the Army was helping achieve those ends. He shook my hand and thanked me for the evening and promised to keep in touch and to visit when he finished up Boot Camp and school. He called out to my son that he’d see him inside, tossed a small gym bag over his shoulder and went in.
My son leaned in the door of the van and hugged his siblings. I could hear him quietly answer a question from his younger brother and trade a couple of last jabs with his oldest sister as I made my way around the back of the van and met him and his mother on the other side. I watched him hug his mom. I thought to myself that she was doing remarkably well under the circumstances. Then it was my turn. We hugged and all of the advice I’d given him along with that of his mom and friends ran through my head. Had he really listened? Would he remember it all? All too soon, the hug was done and he slung his backpack over his shoulder and followed his friend.
It’s amazing how little they let you take. A change of clothes, some basic toiletries, a Bible if you’re so inclined and not much more. I guess it’s true that if you need it, the Army will issue it to you so there’s little use in bringing anything along. Besides, the really important things he had to take he was taking with him anyway. His values, his beliefs, the courage of his convictions, his hopes and his dreams. His heart and his mind. Far too big and far too precious and valuable to entrust to just a backpack.
As I watched him walk away, I was aware of a number of other young men crossing the parking lot, heading towards the lobby door. I ran over the last few hours with my son and the last couple with his new friend. In my mind I listened to them talk and watched them carry themselves. I heard their dreams and caught just a glimpse of the men inside them stretching to fill a space that was still mostly boy. I watched the others streaming towards the hotel in small groups – chatting, laughing, trading insults and forming bonds. They all seemed tall and strong and purposeful. There weren’t any slouches. There weren’t any shuffling, scuffling feet as if they were suddenly afraid or unsure. There wasn’t any braggadocio either. No chest pounding or foolish boasting.
They were a new crop of infantrymen, MPs, tankers, pilots, mechanics, cooks and clerks. They joined so many others stepping into a 200 year old, long, green line filled with boys and men. I wondered at all their stories and what the future held for them. I mentally shook my head at all the details in what they were leaving behind and what their futures held. I wondered if their service would be 4 years or 20 or more and hoped they’d all make it safely to the other side regardless.
And I thought of those who feel sorry for our young men and women who choose this road. The people who think these younglings are dupes; ignorant pawns to be pitied and warned off this particular path. Those who are convinced they are deceived and will be betrayed by the country whose call they are answering and by the personal dreams they are following.
As I watched my son stride off, having said his farewell, I was struck by the fact that he never looked back. I tried and failed to remember if I had when my parents dropped me off at the bus station to head off to college. I wondered what they felt if I had. I wondered what they felt if I hadn’t.
What I felt, last night and now, was an incredible mix of emotions. I didn’t cry then although I’m weeping as I write this. I’m scared – what parent isn’t at this time. I’m concerned – did he make the best choice? Could he – should he have done something else? A different MOS or even a non-military future? A touch of fatalism – it’s too late now, the choice is made and besides, he’s a free moral agent and over 18, the choice isn’t mine.
Pride! Enormous, swelling pride! Others are content to stay at home and enjoy the precious fruit of liberty acquired for our citizenry by such as my son! Others advise we run from this particular fight, my son is running towards it!
At some point in the evening, I heard someone say to my son the words that I’ve said to many a stranger in the mall, at church and on the street – “Thank you for your service to our country!” and I came as close as I ever did to publicly losing it. Pride! Enormous, swelling pride! And one more thing … I’m more than a little envious …
Thinking that you’re in good company in that line … you’ve joined a band of brothers and the company of men … I love you with all my heart and could not be more proud … I’ll see you again in just in 9 weeks … but for now, sitting in the dark and the quiet, filled with emotion and weeping a father’s tears – I’ll tell you good bye again … my life – my soldier – my son …