By Alicia Wanek
What if your child chooses to enlist out of high school rather than go to college? Or wants to attend a military college? Or sees the value in having the military pay for a college education? The scenarios can be very different, but for the parents, the struggles are very much the same. Torn between being concerned for their safety and whether their children are prepared for the reality of that level of commitment while also being beyond proud that their children are willing to make that level of sacrifice, military parents face a unique emotional dichotomy.
For David and Terry Nash, they knew there was a likelihood that at least one of their five boys could join the military. After all, David enlisted at age seventeen and served 20 years in the U.S. Army, and for seventeen of those years, Terry was by his side. After retirement, he became the JROTC instructor at Grand Prairie High School. It turned out that two of their boys signed up. Currently, their oldest Stephen is stationed at Ft. Jackson, SC, and their youngest James is at Ft. Stewart, GA.
David has a unique perspective as a former military recruiter and in his current position with JROTC. He often advises high school students who are interested in military careers. “I encourage my students, if they’re capable, to go to college and take the military option,” David says. University ROTC programs allow students to prepare for the military after graduation while focusing on a degree. For others, enlisting is the better option. “From my experience, I’ve seen kids graduate but struggle to get ahead. The military can help them get on track,” David believes.
One of the biggest benefits of enlistment is the availability to use the GI Bill to pay for a college education. Terry’s and David’s oldest son has done just that. During his time in the Army he has completed his bachelor’s degree and is now finishing his master’s in Healthcare Administration. Just four years from retirement, he will be debt free and well prepared for his future out of the service.
Terry believes having been around the military so long made her less concerned about her sons choosing the same path. “I was accustomed to the environment,” she says, but for Liz Burton, there was a lot of hesitation. Her son Blake, now twenty, enlisted in the Marines at age eighteen at the end of his senior year while Liz and her husband were away with a younger child at a soccer tournament. “We weren’t necessarily on board at first,” Liz admits. She and her husband, a physician in McKinney, had expected that Blake would go to college out of high school. He’d played high school football and had gotten some offers to play for some smaller schools, but unbeknownst to them, he’d been communicating for months with the local recruiter who had visited his high school.
In the two years since he enlisted, “there have been ups and downs,” Liz says, but ultimately, she believes, “I think it’s been good for him.” Blake is currently stationed in Oahu, Hawaii and has just returned from a six-month deployment to Okinawa, Japan. He told his parents he chose the Marines and to be in an Infantry unit because “they’re the meanest, the hardest, the toughest…If I’m going to do it, I’m going to go full force.” Looking back, maybe she shouldn’t have been so surprised since Blake had dressed up and played with his Army figures so much as a child and preferred military documentaries on the History channel to cartoons. She does believe, however, that he did feel some pressure to enlist and that perhaps waiting a year after graduation to prepare and ensure he knew what he was getting into would have been helpful. “Four years is a long time to give back,” Liz points out.
Blake realizes the commitment he made himself, and Liz says he has never complained. Jeri Chambers also stresses that the choice to join the military “needs to be fully of their own volition. It will get grueling and trying, and if you’ve pushed them into it, they’ll blame you,” she says. Jeri and her husband Rick have a daughter Taylor who graduated last year from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a son Austin who just completed his freshman year at the institution that also educated the likes of Patton, MacArthur, and Schwarzkopf.
Like Blake, Austin had grown up “playing Army” and read The Art of War by choice as a young teen. He’d been involved in Scouts and sports, so the military seemed a natural fit. Taylor, on the other hand, approached Jeri and Rick after her sophomore year and said she wanted to attend a university where she would be physically and emotionally challenged as well as academically challenged. After finding out that West Point was the only military academy that offered chemical engineering, she started researching the process for admission and never looked back. Once Austin had seen that his sister could handle the pressure, he believed he could do it, too. Jeri points out that for Taylor, she and Rick were her primary support; for Austin, it’s Taylor. After all, she knows first-hand what he’s going through.
All three families note that joining the military has forced their kids to take on responsibility and to face challenges that have pushed them into adulthood. Jeri advises parents whose children have entered military service, “Brace yourself for them growing up a little faster.” Her daughter Taylor jokes that she matured five years for every year she spent at West Point. Liz says that when they went to meet Blake after his basic training, she thought, “He left a boy but came back a man.” David says, “The military isn’t for everyone. I just see it as a place to grow.”
The families all suggest that one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to discuss with your children the reality of the commitment they’re making. Terry advises meeting with the recruiter with your child if at all possible. “Then you gain that knowledge with them, so it’s not second-hand information.” Jeri remembers just asking her kids, “Are you sure you really want to do this?”
Once they’ve committed to the decision to serve, the worry begins. Liz says, “I sleep with my phone on all the time. I never know what kind of call I’m going to get.” Terry knows, “There is that realistic expectation that they can be deployed.” Jeri says now she’s “someone who says a prayer every time the phone rings.”
The biggest commonality among these families, however, is the extreme pride they all have in the choice their children made to serve. Liz admits, “I have a new sense of patriotism. We rallied behind him and continue to let him know how proud we are of all the sacrifices he’s making.” The reality is, as a nation we are all proud of every soldier, sailor, or Marine who has taken the oath to protect us.