I remember my teenage son coming into my home office one afternoon. I was working on a piece of software and what caught my eye is he sat down in the only other chair in the room. This rarely ever happened, teenagers being teenagers, so I stopped what I was doing and turned my wheelchair to face him.
“I’m thinking about joining the army,” he said.
I said, “Hmmm…” and began rubbing my chin. I was trying to buy time to get past the initial fear I felt. We were not long into the war with Iraq.
Inside of the ten seconds I took to continue the conversation, several things went through my mind. First, I was proud he was thinking about his future. He would graduate high school soon. Second, basic training would give him discipline and self confidence as it had me. Third, and this was the hardest one to take, I had to let him take the path that was best for him, even if it put him in a war zone.
“You understand that you will probably get deployed to Iraq?” I asked.
“Yeah, I do.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Yeah I am.”
“And you understand your mother will be terrified if you get deployed? Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a reason to rule out this decision, just something you need to be prepared for.”
He grinned and said, “Well, I was hoping you would help her get through that part.”
I chuckled and replied, “Oh, so you’re going to put me on the hot seat with you huh?”
“Yeah.” he said with a laugh.
“Alright, if you want me to do that your going to have to tell me why you want to join.”
He was silent for a moment and then said, “Adam and I want to join up together.”
This was the son that held his feelings close. I knew I would have to push him a bit to get to the heart of it. “Friendship is a fine thing son, but it’s not a reason to go off to a war zone.”
He struggled a moment, then I saw the anger. “They killed thousands of mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. There needs to be consequences.”
The word I had impressed upon him so many times had come back to haunt me. I’d told him so many times over the years, “There are always consequences for our actions. Some good, some bad, but everything we do has consequences.”
I gave a single nod and said, “Okay, what do you want to do in the army?”
He relaxed and we discussed what types of jobs he was interested in. I gave him information from my experiences in the service and over a period of two hours, we finally narrowed it down to three. Six weeks later my wife and I saw him off to boot camp.
My son wrote the one required letter home that everyone is told to write. I didn’t expect more than that. He wasn’t the type to write. But it gave my wife the address to send letters and packages to. Lord knows she spent more in postage in those weeks than we had in five years, but I understood.
A large envelope came in the mail letting us know the time and place of his graduation from boot camp. It would be a twelve hour drive. That would be difficult for me to manage, even as a passenger, but I didn’t care. I would make the trip.
We arrived a day earlier than everyone else, so I could rest in bed. I wanted to make sure I had the energy to function on his graduation day
Two days later, I rolled through the parking lot as my wife walked beside me. A light rain had started so the graduation had been moved inside. Once we entered the building, a female private led my wife and I to an area at the front reserved for wheelchairs.
It was a few minutes later that I heard a sound that brought back memories; the sound of many combat boots hitting the ground in step. A door opened to the left and in front of us, and in marched rank after rank of soldiers. I was surprised to see that they weren’t dressed in their class A uniforms, but wore the same combat fatigues I had years before.
When they came to a halt, there were five columns, four soldiers wide, twenty five or thirty ranks deep. Every soldier stood at attention. I searched each one, looking for my son. I found him five ranks back in a column to my left, the right-most soldier in the rank from my point of view. I pointed him out to my wife.
The company commander, a captain, approached the podium and began to speak to the audience. I glanced at my wife, and she was listening to his words with intent. I was somewhere else. Memories of first putting on the same uniform my son now wore came back to me. Of feeling like I was part of something greater than myself. Of friendships, deployments and the oath that I took to defend the constitution.
Silence brought me back to the present. The captain was finished and the batallion commander was approaching the podium. This time, my thoughts went to my son. Did he feel the same as I had? Had he made friends? Did he truly understand the oath he had taken, the same as I had?
I scrutinized the boy. No, the man I now saw before me. His posture rigid, his forward looking eyes held determination and confidence in his abilities. His face was serious, a seriousness I had never seen on that young face. He knew. He understood that oath just as I had; that it might require him to sacrifice his life to uphold it. That he had volunteered to speak those words made the act one of true service. I couldn’t have been prouder of him.
I felt my wife’s hand leave mine. She was standing. Applause filled the room. I made a quick decision. It would suck the life out of me, but by God I was going to stand and honor these soldiers. I gripped the right arm of my wheelchair and placed my left hand firmly on my left thigh. I pushed up hard and I stood. In order to stay standing I had to keep pressure on my thighs with my hands.
i felt at a loss. I couldn’t stand and clap at the same time. I whispered to my wife to put her arm around my waist. She held me firmly. I swung my right leg slightly forward and faced my son in the same basic position of attention he held, my weight balanced on my left leg. My right arm came up with a snap in a clean and deliberate salute as I stared at my son. Tears stung my eyes as I passed the baton to my son with that age old sign of respect. I brought my hand down and a second later dropped into my wheelchair. I was exhausted, but it was worth it.
Over the next few years my son served three different tours in Iraq coming home safe each time. I thanked God every time.
This was the post I had hoped to put up on Veterans Day but just couldn’t get it finished in time. It took three days to get this typed.
If you should happen to pop over and read this son, I love you and am damn proud of the man you’ve become.