Veteran's Day Redux: Thoughts at the End of a Son's Military Service

Author's Note: Veteran's Day is about, and brace yourself because this may surprise you, honoring veterans. And nothing else. Thank God we have people at Barstool who've served and can speak to the rest of us what that experience is all about and what it means to them. And should to mean to us all. I'm far from qualified and I'm grateful to work with someone who is.

The best I can do is offer the perspective of someone who didn't do military service but who raised someone who did. And maybe provide a little perspective from the point of view of the families of those who make that sacrifice. I originally wrote this two years ago, at the end of my older son's active duty in the Marine Corps. And rereading it today brought back a lot of memories. I'm happy to report he's doing really well. Happy for the experience but glad his tour is over. Going to school but staying in touch every day. Still friends with his brothers in the Corps, as they probably will be for life. And last night showed his girlfriend "Full Metal Jacket," which comes up in the story. Thanks to everyone at Zero Blog Thirty who had me on to talk about this when it was first posted. And my undying gratitude to those who served or are serving, and the loved ones they had to leave behind. I hope this sounds like your experience. 

Today is a day that's been a long time coming for the Thorntons. Because as I'm sitting here writing this, my older son, after serving his four years, is wrapping up his final day as an active duty member of the United States Marine Corps. Every day, thousands of service members go through it. Unlike his classmates who graduated college in the Spring, there'll be no huge ceremony. No caps and gowns. No tedious speeches. No family sitting in bleachers taking pictures. He walks into an office, signs a form, throws a couple of duffel bags into the back seat of his car and heads off into civilian life, having held up his end of the bargain he signed on for. So I thought it's worth my time and yours to let you know what this is like on behalf of the families of America's 1.3 million active military duty personnel.

Like most military parents, this didn't begin for us when we dropped him off at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Southie on Labor Day of 2014. It started two years or so sooner. When our academically mediocre, seemingly directionless 16-year-old finally let us know why his grades were so lousy and why getting him to talk about college was basically Medieval dentistry. Because he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and sitting in a classroom for four years was the furthest thing from it. He'd done all the research. Had already talked to a recruiter. Had good friends who were Marines. Watched Full Metal Jacket. He made up his mind he wanted to join the Corps when he was 14 and was just waiting for the right time and the right words to tell us. And now he was asking us to sign the early commitment forms so he could go straight out of high school. At this news, his mom collapsed on the couch in tears,with the weight of a thousand news reports of flag covered coffins and Wounded Warriors missing limbs and parts of their souls dropped on a mother's shoulders all at once.

We tried a few alternatives. We took him on a couple of visits to military schools. Talked about maybe officer's training. But that path wasn't for him. He wanted to be a grunt. His word, not mine. And not for any other branch of the service but the Marines. The tip of the spear. Ultimately we realized that trying to force him into a classroom was like trying to teach a pig to sing. It gets you nowhere and just pisses off the pig. So we signed the papers. When his buddies were all going off to college, he went off to 13 weeks at Parris Island. As fate would have it, assigned to the 3092nd, the same platoon Gunnery Sgt. Hartman trained. For those 13 weeks, in our case exactly from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, all you have to communicate by is snail mail. When your wife's girlfriends are exchanging bunny-face Snapchats with their daughters as they run off to rush a Sorority, you feel like you might as well be writing with a quill pen on a scroll. And the distance between you and your kid hits you for the first time and cracks your heart. And that emotion comes out of you at random moments. Like when the Irish Rose was in a show where she did a song called "Flagmaker, 1775" about a Revolutionary War mom who's son is "fighting in a ditch" that includes the cheery, uplifting lyric "One more star, one more stripe, as you pray your child's not dead." Nice timing on that. Her singing is like audio pepper spray to me, anyway. But this time I can honestly say I was the dictionary definition of "making a scene in public."

Here's the thing about that. I've always believed life could be summed up in graph form. It's basically a declining slope of dependency between you and your child. When they're born, they are 100% dependent on you and you are 0% dependent on them. And by the time you die, you're 100% dependent and they are at 0%. But when they go off to the military, they've gone from say, 75% reliant on you to practically zero overnight. They're out of your control. You can't help them, save writing words of encouragement and hoping they don't sound hollow. Can't help them, which goes against every instinct you have. I mean, what kind of a parent are you if you can't keep your child safe? At the MEPS building as they were being sworn in, every kid was asked why they joined. And my Marine's answer was "To become part of something greater than myself." I defy anyone not to hear that out of your baby and not feel permanently changed. And so you have to process the fact that they chose a life of protecting everyone else. Of making you safe. I know I never have.

Instead I've just tried the best I could to be grateful. While he was being sent to two coasts, three continents, a half dozen countries, deserts, and freezing cold mountains, being promoted and decorated, he's stayed in one piece. As a below average Catholic, I never felt right about praying for him to be kept safe. I'm just not a big believer in the kind of prayer where you ask for things. (Beyond, say, the occasional touchdown or maybe a birdie putt.) So I've tried to stick strictly to prayers of giving thanks. Though through four years of Masses when they do the "We pray for our military that they're graves be a solemn reminder of the need for peace," I admit I've choked on every, single "Lord hear our prayer."

About the being in one piece: When we told people about his choice to become a Marine, well-meaning family and friends came to us with stories about people they knew with PTSD and dire warnings about how he'll come back a changed person and it will not be good. Hell, when his mom burst into tears, he told her he wants to come back a man. To be respectful and stand at attention and call us "Sir" and "Ma'am." Well I'm happy to say the first thing never happened. And sorry to say, neither did the second. He came back a bigger, bulkier, tatted-up version of the kid he was when he was running to grab spent shell casings after the 21-gun salute at the Memorial Day parade. The same kid that had teachers grabbing the thesaurus to find new euphemisms for "Your kid never shuts up." (My personal favorite: "Well, he's got an audience in this class." Nice one.) When he's been home, he talks about his officers in the exact same way he talked about his teachers. So we dodged that figurative bullet. As Horace put it, "He changes his sky, not his soul, who runs across the sea." And since that was six decades before Christ was born, he never saw Instagrams of his son and his buddies pounding beers in Korea. But he was right.

There's still way too much catching up to do. He's been home for all of three days since New Year's of 2017. A million stories about the four years of his life we missed. (Some that I'll leave to him telling his uncles because I don't have the emotional maturity to hear it about my own son.) The days in the rainforest where the temps had guys passing out from heat stroke and he had to carry them to the medivac. Sleeping in the 33 degree rain that was so miserable, his CO who'd been in a dozen firefights called it the worst night of his life. He turned 21 overseas so I literally haven't had a beer in a bar with him the way my friends do with their adult children. Mostly I'm just looking forward to some semblance of what used to pass for normalcy in the days when our biggest family crisis was an argument over a game of Spongebob Monopoly.

So, while the Thornton family role in defending the country is at an end, my gut tells me you never stop being a military family. Any more than there are ex-Marines. I'm sorry to say I've been to two Marine Corps funerals in these four years. One KIA and the other lost his battle with PTSD, a sentence I can't type without needing to take a moment. When 12 young Marines die in a chopper crash in Hawaii, you don't pretend for a second you know what the families are going through. But you know you've shared similar experiences with them. The anxiety of not hearing from your son in weeks and not knowing where he is. The fear of seeing a car with blue government plates pulling up your driveway. Being woken up in the middle of the night by your wife crying because she had another bad dream. Of a younger sibling turning to his faith to deal with the separation from a brother he thinks hung the moon.

So as he transitions to civilian life, all I can do is be grateful the universe behaved itself at least enough to deliver him safe and sound back to the States and off to college. And to thank all the people over the years who have asked about our Marine, wished him well and told me to thank him for his service. Mostly to swear publicly that I'll do what I can from here on out to be one of the tens of millions who stand by our military families and help them in any way possible. God bless. Semper Fi. Oo rah, Devil Dogs.