It wasn’t until our son was halfway between 11 and 12 years old that I started paying attention when he brainstormed aloud about what he wanted to be when he grows up. Until then, it was all professional Lego builder, YouTuber and video game tester — which I, like any good mom, passively supported while hoping he’d steer toward more practical lanes of employment.
Somewhere between 11 and 12 he casually dropped that he’d, “Probably be a Marine because Dad and Grandpa were Marines,” and — in a rare moment of speechlessness — I found my emotions (literally all of them) engaged in some sort of Hollywood-scale, rush-hour intersection pileup. You know the scene: traffic pole hit, traffic lights blinking and dangling by a cord, fire hydrant erupting all over Main Street, honking, yelling, hazard lights — utter chaos that results in a standstill.
A career of military service was a stark contrast to the daydreams of testing video games or building Lego houses. It was real, very real. And it shook me for more reasons than the realization that my little boy was growing up and growing more practical, just as I’d hoped (careful what you wish for parents of little ones). It shook me because I’ve had my heart broken at various degrees by the Marine Corps more times than I can count in the last 15 years, but I’d always seen the finish line of my husband’s retirement. The idea of my son donning the same uniform one day means the stress, the uncertainty, the risk — they all continue for our family. And that is something I never saw coming.
What I Said
It took a few long, shocking seconds to get there, but I responded with something along the lines of how choosing to serve is such a very important and very brave thing to do. If that’s what he wanted to do for a few years or for 20-plus years, he had my support. I added that I knew it would make his dad and Grandpa pretty proud to hear him say that.
I finished by saying there are so many opportunities in the Marines — or other branches — that aren’t just flying (like Dad and Grandpa), and we could research and talk more if he wanted more ideas.
What My Brain Was Thinking
Military recruitment isn’t exactly thriving right now. There are arguably better opportunities out of uniform than in, and from our own experience, the benefits we’re given — commissary access, medical, BAH — aren’t necessarily keeping pace with the civilian world. To be blunt, we were dealing with moldy bread and no milk OCONUS long before COVID-19 disrupted supply chains. We have put up with housing conditions that would bankrupt a civilian landlord. Toss in the random separations, the deployments and the moves, and this life is just harder than many will ever know.
But, despite our best efforts, our son knows. He’s had a front-row seat to canceled plans and empty commissary shelves. He’s missed his dad. He’s moved away from his friends. He’s been disappointed; he’s been the new kid; he’s been anxious; he’s cried; he’s experienced loss.
But still — however abstract at age 11 — he is considering serving his country.
We (OK, I) might assume that military kids with a behind-the-scenes view of service would opt for something simpler, more stable, more stationary, something easier. But I found myself questioning if the opposite might be true. They don’t need flashy recruitment campaigns or bonuses (but they don’t hurt). They see their heroes in uniform, and they want to be that hero for someone else. This only further supports the notion that young men and women step up to the line for the sense of service, not the glamorous lifestyle. The reward is in the sacrifice — it always has been.
What My Heart Was Saying
The latest recruitment efforts are aimed at parents — convince the parents that their kids can serve — that they will be cared for and set up for a bright future post-service. And, a tip of this experienced strategic communicator’s hat, that’s the best card to play right now. I’m listening. A generation of parents are listening. Now that you have our attention, show us what you will do because you’ll have to do more to compete with the private sector, inflation and the overall quality of life attainable elsewhere.
I don’t know what our son’s future holds (or our daughter’s for that matter). I don’t know if it will eventually include military service — that’s up to him. I do know that if he decides to serve, he’ll bring pride to the uniform he chooses, and his dad and I will be proud of him.
There is a small — and ever-shrinking — population of recruits who get involuntary goosebumps when the snare drumrolls into our national anthem. A select few stop without a reminder when Retreat signals the retiring of the colors at sunset. This group — many of them military kids — are natural successors in service. They’re inspired to serve, and they respect the gravity of the oath.
Our country will need those inspired and determined leaders in the generations ahead, just like we’ve needed them in every chapter of the history book. They will be creative and brave. They will challenge the way it’s always been done while holding traditions and standards sacred. They will inspire the generation behind them, without ever trying or seeking recognition. It’s not easy to picture our little boy — the one we’ve protected his entire life — standing up saying “send me,” but in that very blunt announcement somewhere between 11 and 12 years old, this mother saw that possibility for the first time.