This Friday, the bulk of our family attended Coast Guard Recruit Training (boot-camp) graduation in Cape May, NJ. Our son, Will, joined the 1% of young adults who choose to serve in the military. Our nation’s military defends America’s freedom, sovereignty, and wellbeing from evil forces such as terrorists like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The United States military are called to rescue our citizens from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, from the vile effects of drug and sex trafficking on our borders, and even from our own stupidity, i.e. drunk and dangerous speedboat operators.
In my opinion, military service is a high calling or vocation, but the “identity forming” involved in transforming a civilian young adult into a soldier or sailor is intense. Eight weeks of being yelled at (sometimes for outrageous things like having a last name that could also be a first name—think George, Lee, Bruce), strenuous physical incentive training–punishment to me, grueling classwork memorization, too little sleep, no personal space or freedom. No Twitter. No Facebook. In fact, no phone or computer at all, except for a few hours of liberty in weeks 6 (on base) and 7 (off base) when you can use your phone and maybe get on a computer. We sent and received communication the old-fashioned way—letters. This made a trip to the mailbox an exciting adventure!
The graduation of Uniform Company-186 was celebratory and jubilant, marked with a strong performance by the all-recruit volunteer band. Families and friends were treated with an orange Coast Guard Helicopter fly-by (I’m sure my husband could tell you the exact make and model) and a rousing parade of the graduating company in their spiffy white covers (hats to us civilians) and tropical blue uniforms. Younger recruit companies in ODUs (Operational Dress Uniforms) marched by so we could cheer them on. And the confused/terrorized/fill in the blank looks on some of these young faces indicated a strong need for encouragement—especially those who were only in week 2 of boot camp.
Early in his training, our son volunteered to be the Religious Petty Officer for his company, which meant, at graduation he wrote the benediction. Even if he hadn’t told us about his involvement ahead of time, certain aspects of the prayer would’ve resonated with our family—like “endeavor to persevere.” This line is one of our family favorites. It hails from the scene in The Outlaw Josey Wales when the Native American Chief, Lone Watie, recounts how, after several Native American Chiefs went to Washington to tell Abraham Lincoln of the long list of broken promises and atrocities committed by the government against their people, Lincoln’s counsel to them was “endeavor to persevere.” After pondering this response for a time, the Chiefs declared war on the white man. When anyone, even our Ukrainian daughters, leaves for work or school and someone—usually me—says, “Have a great day,” the commandeered response is automatically given. “I will…endeavor to persevere.”
My husband Tim, a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and an officer for twenty-two years after that, looked forward to the graduation for weeks. He dusted off his old Coast Guard uniform (that still fit him perfectly after five years) and bought a new pair of shoes which our daughter Katya helped him shine. For our family, the apex of the day was when my husband handed Will his certificate and hugged his son. It is a moment in a day that will be permanently etched in our memory. We left Cape May on a celebratory high, listening to Will recount stories of boot camp for hours on our trip back to Williamsburg. While I doubt he’d want to repeat the eight weeks, Will loved his Company Commanders and they did their job–our son feels proud to be a member of the Coast Guard and is looking forward to his assignment on the New Jersey Shore.
Two days later, Tim read about another young adult from Virginia in the 1%. Stephen Chase Prasnicki, a 2010 West Point graduate who played football for the Army’s Black Knights of the Hudson, was killed during combat operations in Afghanistan. The obituary picture was this handsome young man smiling in his West Point uniform with such a promising future. That future, dreamed about by his wife of six months, parents, family, and friends, is now cut off and that has to be a tremendous source of grief and loss. My heart hurts for them. Especially since I know the highs they experienced with a graduation and a wedding in the past two years.
Service always comes at a cost. Sometimes temporary and relatively light—loss of freedom, identity, comfort. And sometimes it’s the ultimate price and is paid for in blood and the tears of loved ones. But still, year after year, you join. You serve. And I respect YA for it.