I’ve been in the Army 13 years now, and when I talk with family and friends that have no connection to the military other than myself, I encounter a few questions with recurring themes.
Question: How do you do it?
Answer: I don’t know really. It’s what we know and we just get it done.
Question: Seen any action?
Answer: Ugh. Really? Are you in 7th grade?
Question: Are you going to live in a tent when you graduate college?
Answer: No Dad, I’ll live in a house.
Question: “So and So” wants to join the Army, what do I tell him?
Answer: Ooh, good one. Uh, errrr, do more pushups?
The last one is totally valid though, and I guarantee someone reading this will go through it, probably when they least expect it.
First, a couple of observations:
If your kid has independently decided they want to join the military they’ve probably done more thinking than you’re likely to give them credit for, especially now.
If you think you have a smart kid that “is bound for something greater that takes advantage of their intellectual prowess” you might also have a kid that wants to be challenged in a way that Harvard can’t.
I choose those two because they are usually the parents that are the most surprised. I’ve seen it.
I met a kid a few years ago (and yes, he was only 3 years into his adulthood) on my first tour in Afghanistan. He looked like he was 12. He couldn’t even grow a beard like the rest of us, so he had to shave to avoid that “Team America World Police” beard that senior leadership hates (probably because it doesn’t look as cool in recruiting posters).
One day he mentioned that it was his birthday. I sarcastically asked him how it felt to be 20. He said, “That was yesterday dude, I’m 21 today.”
None of this is shocking until you consider he was a Green Beret. He turned 21, in Afghanistan, after nearly 3 years of continuous, rigorous, and predominantly miserable training. This got us talking.
As it turns out the guy was a Cross Country rock-star in the Midwest and graduated Valedictorian of a 1000 student class. He had a full ride scholarship to Princeton. He turned it down to enlist and TRY to become a member of Army Special Forces.
I thought he was nuts.
I told him so.
He said, well, if I graduated from Princeton I’ll be a Princeton grad, and there are lots of those. There aren’t as many Green Berets. My parents kind of flipped out.
Which brings me to this, a few bits of advice to the uninitiated parent of a child that up and decides they want to serve.
First, when you’re child is making that kind of life altering decision, they’ve seriously given it some thought. Talk to them about it. Understand what they are trying to achieve before you toss in any preconceived notions about what the military is like. It’s not for everybody, but it’s also probably not exactly what you’ve imagined if you haven’t been a part of it.
Second, do some research before you have a discussion with your child. You know your child better than almost anyone else; you understand their strengths and weaknesses. Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to gain a decent understanding of almost every job the military has to offer by looking them up. Matching up inherent strengths and weaknesses to appropriate jobs in the military can be the difference between a positive experience and a miserable one.
Third, don’t let the recruiter run you over. They have a job to do, and that’s put butts on busses. Nothing wrong with that, but they might try and steer your child into something they don’t want. It happens. Be willing to walk away and say thanks for the free T-Shirt. They’ll call back and cave in.
Finally, and most importantly, don’t help your kid join up as a form of attitude rehab. It really doesn’t work. The old adage that “the Army will straighten him out, give him discipline, etc.” doesn’t really ring true. It might provide some DIRECTION, but the discipline comes from within. I’ve seen young soldiers completely destroy themselves by going absent without leave (the notorious AWOL) and live with an “other than honorable” discharge on their record; most of them didn’t want to be in the Army in the first place but were shepherded in.
To close, I’ll leave you with this: One way or another you’re going to cry a little. Either because you’re proud, scared to death, or both. It’s probably the same way you felt when they went to their first day of school.
Just remember how you handled that, and you’ll be fine.