My husband and I spent Veterans Day 2013 in Annapolis, MD. Both Veterans Day and Annapolis hold great personal significance for me. My father was an Annapolis graduate who served a 30-year career as naval officer; ultimately a Navy captain and dentist, he was a Korean and Vietnam War veteran. He passed away on Veterans Day 2005. My husband is a retired naval officer and aviator, also an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam War veteran. I met my husband in northern Virginia at the tail end of his military career, while at his last duty station. Our son is a current Midshipman at the Naval Academy and now lives in Annapolis.
It was the confluence of these factors that made this past Veterans Day in Annapolis a reflective, emotional experience for me. In the past 2-½ years since my son left home for the Academy I have been given a remarkable, eye-opening and at times unwelcome education on military life. I thought being a Navy Mom would be relatively easy since I grew up in a Navy household and we moved from Navy town to Navy town, always surrounded by other military families. I was used to the vernacular, the uniforms, and the way of life. I still feel at home when on a Navy base. My mother made being a Navy wife, with all the moves and separations and challenges, look easy. She was incredibly organized and competent, and running our home efficiently was her talent and passion. I felt I knew and understood the pitfalls of a military family more than most.
But I was never an active duty Navy wife, and it’s a whole new ball of wax sending your child off to the military. I have come to a greater appreciation of the hardships military families face, although I fully realize I have thus far only peeked in the door. Any military “education” I’ve obtained as the daughter of a Navy captain or the mother of a midshipman is still at the preschool level compared to lessons borne by other military families. The fundamental shift for me in the past 2-½ years has been emotional, in that I am now the parent of one of the 2% of America’s sons and daughters that have committed themselves to defend our country in battle and have thus placed themselves in harms way. Non-military families are genuinely thankful and appreciative for others military service but it is impossible to fully understand (I know I didn’t) without that very real potential personal sacrifice. (I wonder if compulsory military service for our young people should be seriously considered and would be a greater deterrent to war, but that’s a separate discussion).
Our son is my only child and we were intensely involved in every aspect of his upbringing. He is one of the two most precious people in my life. But two weeks after his high school graduation, we accompanied him to Annapolis for Induction Day, where he took his oath of office, after which pride turned to sadness when we left him to return home. It was arguably one of the hardest things either my son or I had ever done. He was left to complete “Plebe Summer” on his own, an intensive 6-week training regimen, with minimal contact with the outside world. For me, it was returning without him to an intensely quiet house, and the differences in routines, large and small that almost always included our son. At first, it felt like a death in the family, particularly with no contact with him for Plebe Summer. At a minimum, it was a pretty extreme college ‘launch”.
But our son survived Plebe summer just fine and so did we. And we have learned through our son’s USNA career that everything has a purpose. The Navy is teaching and preparing midshipmen for future naval careers. It is taking teenage superstars who have achieved much individual success and is molding them into a cohesive organization of young men and women who will work effectively as a team, by breaking them down and then building them back up. The breaking down part first involves separation from everything they are familiar with (including friends, family and surroundings), beginning with Plebe Summer and then building them back up through education, camaraderie and leadership within the Brigade. It does give me comfort that they are being expertly prepared for what may come. The Navy is also giving us family members an education in letting go. Difficult as it seemed at the time, Plebe summer was in fact a harmless practice “deployment” designed to teach us to separate from our kids.
Following successful completion of Plebe Summer and the entire Plebe (freshman) year that followed, our son has thrived at the Academy, and we have thoroughly enjoyed his time at USNA. We joined the local Annapolis Parents Club and have met and befriended other Navy parents who we find to be, without exception, salt of the earth folk. I am on Facebook and chat pages for USNA parents. There is an amazing support system and bond amongst military families precisely because of the unique journey we have found ourselves on. We have visited Annapolis often for football games and visits. We have watched our son grow in confidence and abilities. Now that he is a junior, he is taking on more leadership responsibilities. A strong and confident young man has replaced that nervous boy that we shipped off two years ago. I have never been more proud.
But I know that the Academy is a relatively safe place preparing him for a very dangerous world. I know that our experience thus far has been deceptively comfortable. As his graduation next year looms, my thoughts increasingly turn to the next steps in the journey, when he begins professional training (e.g., flight school if he becomes an aviator) and later deployment. This will then be the real world with real dangers and I will be forced to fully open that door.
Our recent travel to Normandy, where I grieved the loss of so many other sons, our association with other Navy and Marine parents, many of whom are now in the deployment phase of their sons’ and daughters’ careers, our increased exposure to the military on our numerous trips to Annapolis, a growing sense of what lays ahead for us – all of these have combined to instill in me a deep respect for the military families who have come before me. I connect more emotionally now to my father’s career with a spouse and three children at home, my mother as a military spouse managing a household on her own, my husband who during his active duty career lost fellow aviators in battle, and the countless military families across the country who bear their burdens daily.
I recently asked both my husband and son how a midshipman feels about his or her potential future involvement in war. I wondered – is the prospect something to be feared, to be welcomed or something else? Both said that war is part of their commitment, something they train for and are prepared for, and which they do not fear. My son mentioned that so many people thank him for his service that he and his classmates feel an obligation to actually serve. Many of our Annapolis Parents Club friends who now have deployed sons or daughters describe an intense mix of pride and fear. They tell me they can’t dwell on the dangers their kids are facing, but the gnawing fear in the stomach is never far away. After much reflection this past Veterans Day, I would like to personally salute and thank our military families past and present for their bravery and sacrifice. I admire them more than ever. That small kernel of anxiety that is just beginning to form in my stomach pales in comparison to the enormous pressures, difficulties and fears that remain their constant companions. And in the end, I rely on our Heavenly Father for comfort and protection and come back to the words of “Eternal Father” also known as the Navy Hymn:
“Eternal Father, strong to save. Whose arm hath bound the restless wave. Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea. Amen”