It happened while we were driving back from…I don’t know…somewhere. My son was telling me about a tattoo he wanted to get. To be honest, I was only half listening. He was only 17 so he could change his mind countless times before he was legally allowed to get a tattoo. But something caught my attention.
“Hey, son, I’m all for the tattoo but I feel like that’s a tattoo someone in the military gets.”
“Yea Mom, I’m waiting until after I join the Marines to get it.”
I think I had an out of body experience. Or my heart stopped. Or something. I still count myself lucky I didn’t wreck the car and bring his dreams of military glory to a screeching halt. He had talked about joining the Marines from the time he was four. We come from a military family, my grandfather served in both World War II and Korea. But in the last few years, he hadn’t mentioned it at all. I thought he’d forgotten it. I was wrong.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want my child to serve…it’s just I didn’t want him to be in danger or far away or…okay, maybe I didn’t want him to go. But I never said that. I talked him out of joining as soon as he graduated high school thinking if he attended college he’d be distracted…or if he met a girl…his photography business was taking off…I forgot he is as hard headed as his mother.
He left for bootcamp on Mother’s Day. I wanted to make it easier for him so I was determined not to cry. I choked back tears as he said goodbye to his dog. We took him to the Recruiter’s office and blinked back tears as he hugged me and his sister. The next day we drove to MEPS to watch him take his oath. And then we went home and waited for the phone call that would let us know he’d made it safely to Parris Island. The recruiter had warned us about the phone call so we’d know he’d be reading from a script while a Drill Instructor yelled at him. He wouldn’t be able to talk to us. So, while he read from the script (“I have arrived safely at Parris Island. Please do not send any food or bulky items. I will contact you in 7 to 10 days via postcard with my new mailing address. Thank you for your support. Goodbye for now.”) my daughter and I repeated over and over “We love you. We’ll miss you. You’ve got this.” Into the phone.
Bootcamp is 13 weeks long. And what no one tells you is, it’s the easy part. Sure, it’s difficult. You learn a new vocabulary (including an impossibly long list of acronyms). You learn to shorten ‘qualification’ to ‘quals’ (swim quals, MCMAP quals, firing quals…) and to hold your breath every time one of them show up on the schedule. You learn to never call your Recruit a Marine until they’ve actually made it through the Crucible (see new vocabulary), to never ever call a Marine a soldier (or vice versa), or to call your future Marine’s Drill Instructor a “Drill Sargent”. You learn that no one else but fellow Recruit Parents or Marine Moms that you have met thanks to the internet are going to understand why you rearrange schedules to get to the mailbox and why you are a crazy woman during the three days of the Crucible. But there is a schedule in your hands…you know what your child is going to be doing daily. There is a countdown on your phone that tells you when you will see him again. There are ten glorious days at home to look forward to before he has to report to the next step and somehow those ten days seem so long until you actually get him home and realize how quickly they passed.
My son has been a Marine for almost two years now. We have made it through his first deployment. I’ve learned the value of “no news is good news” and how to initiate the Red Cross when he needed to be informed of a family emergency. I love Skype almost more than anything in the world. I’ve learned “Semper Fidelis” and I’ve also learned “Semper Gumby” (specifically when his leave was cut short the first time he’d been home in seven months). I haven’t learned not to get my feelings hurt when people don’t ask about him. The first Thanksgiving I asked people to send him messages of encouragement because it was his first major holiday away from home. This year I didn’t…and no one single person did it. He was still deployed and he missed chow so he had Subway for Thanksgiving. My heart hurt. There seems to be this idea that “supporting the troops” is a bumper sticker or eating a hotdog on the Fourth of July or raising a ruckus because a football player is using his First Amendment rights. But supporting the troops means a Facebook post to them or their family, a letter or a card…maybe a care package, telling their family that you see their sacrifice and are praying for them.
What I want you to know about being a military family is that it is hard. Your hurt bursts with both the pride and the anxiety of it. It’s also lonely. It doesn’t have to be…people make all the difference. A couple of nights ago, some friends of mine that I’d shared how my kids had collected nutcrackers as they grew up brought me an early Christmas present…it was a nutcracker dressed in woodland camouflage. To be honest, the camouflage resembled Army more than Marines but I wasn’t about to tell them that. It was the most precious thing to me, that they saw that and thought of my son and me. I asked their young daughter where I should put it and she walked straight to my bedroom. She asked what side of the bed I slept on and when I told her, she placed the nutcracker on that bedside table. So it would be the first thing I see when I wake up. And there is where it is. Not because I need reminding of my favorite Marine but because it reminds me that people love us and he isn’t forgotten.