I have two 19 year old nieces who are twins. About three months ago, they went into Marine boot camp and are advancing through that system. Even now, that’s hard to type and feel comfortable even speaking about. Like when they started driving, just like their younger cousin is now, I think… how did this happen? I swear I was just giving them bottles and sniffing their heads after baths.
No one knows where it started or where they got the idea. I chalk it up to a viewing too many of A Few Good Men. It was disturbing when they started to talk about enlisting and serving and “fighting bad guys”, no one in our family really served. My dad was a desk jockey in the Army in the late 50s but never got even close to combat, he did his two years and never looked back so that barely counts. He gets a flag in his name every Memorial Day at the cemetery in which he’s buried but every year I forget he was even in the service until that day.
The girls’ folks fought them as hard as many parents would when frightened that their children are going down an “undesirable” path. Now, I realize there are parents out there who would instantly don every USMC clothing item and sticker the car as soon as their kid says he wants to join up, but our family is not that sort. We looked at them, frankly, like they told us they wanted to move to Russia for fun. They began to work out several times a week with the rest of the hopefuls down at the local recruitment station. In the meantime, my sister and her husband introduced them to every woman who had served that they could find, they gave them hard facts, figures, and all the truth any tunnel-visioned teenager doesn’t want to hear. They begged them to go in as Officers (with a four year degree), not Private. They did not budge, they wanted in at the ground floor. So as part of the agreement, they both attended college for one year and at the end, were allowed to make the decision to enlist or not. They put their time in, made the Dean’s list, and then packed their stuff up never to return. They were going to be Marines with zero hesitation.
One left mid-June, the other left two weeks later. They’ve both finished boot camp and are now onto the second part where they learn how to use their weapons outdoors and in light pseudo-combat situations. After that is done, they will either go onto their chosen specialty schools or if things are backed up, go home for a bit first. My sister and brother in law are of course, hopping for the latter. It’s very possible however, that this will be the first Christmas without the twins in 19 years.
“How did this happen?” has been asked more times than I can count, by the family and by so many of our friends. On the drive home from my mom’s one evening, I asked it out loud yet again to Dylan. He paused a beat and said, “Well… when you raise kids in an environment where the only news is Fox news and everyone’s an America-supportin’ Republican, what did they expect?” and you know, I just had to sit there in silence while the veil lifted from my eyes. He was dead on. My sister and her husband made the choice for their kids that school was their work, they wanted them to focus on their education while in high school rather than get jobs and split their time. Involved in athletics almost every semester, that mattered more in how they raised their kids. But all of us had jobs in high school, some of us had jobs before we were of legal working age, even. It’s how we all greeted the world in those formative years. We learned to work with adults who weren’t teachers, peers who we wouldn’t see at school the next day, we learned our working styles and what we liked and hated. It was valuable, even if it did mean odd hours and occasional busy nights.
Not having children, I have no way to argue the merits of my sister and brother in law’s choice aside from that it, along with their loving but structured parenting style, clearly worked since both girls graduated with honors and joined the National Honor Society. They both went to colleges on scholarship and made the Dean’s List, but each time I spoke with them it was clear that their intended horizons were more camouflage than mortarboard. I had to admit, they were more driven about it than anything since their love of Barney when they were toddlers and in truth, I was pretty impressed by that. So I threw my backing behind them and told them both that I loved them, supported them, and they had my high fives.
It was so interesting to talk to them during their breaks after boot camp. They were still themselves, but each brought something different home with her. The first one to come back was louder, talked faster, lost a certain amount of shyness, and clearly came out of the experience better for it. The other one was further out of her quieter shell. She didn’t talk louder or faster, but she asserted herself more and that was a great thing to see. Plus apparently, they can break our wrists in like, 30 seconds now.
So they finished school, enlisted, heads held high, as we all watched them, helpless to stop it. It felt very much like they were both chasing their first boyfriends, a dirtbag no one approved of. I sound like an anti-American debaser. Sigh. I am proud, don’t get me wrong, I love my girls. I just do not like the military. It’s a necessary evil for every country to have, but that’s what it is. They will tell those kids that they’re heroes, protecting their country and doing God’s work. Recruiters, CO’s, and commencement speakers will tell them that the country will owe them a debt of gratitude their entire lives, and that they will garner respect wherever they go. They will convince them that this is the best way to be. That they are the best Americans who will get free health care and the odd free meal every now and again, not to mention all the salutes, nods, and “thank you for your service” that they can handle.
But it isn’t true. I’ve seen what happens at the VA hospitals first hand. I know how long it takes for the recently-retired vets to see their checks and to get their school money. Absolutely none of it works out the way they are promised, particularly the respect-from-their-country part. The whole purpose of the military is to break down the individual and build up the machine. Whatever happens to them after they’re done is not the country’s concern any longer. They got what they needed and now you’re on your own, recruit. Seeyabye. PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse problems? Sure, we can put you through the VA system for help but oh, gosh, sorry it’s gonna take a few months to get into your assigned doctor (who can cancel the appointment the day before if it suits them). But they bought it, hook, line, and sinker. They are in it and they are eating it up by the bowlful. Yes, they are realizing that it’s a lot of “hurry up and wait” and they have seen what happens when one CO does something a little too lax than they think they should, so they realize that the world is in the military too and it’s not a perfect system.
The only person I’ve expressed any of this to the degree that I truly feel it, is Dylan and only because I know he agrees with me. We sat with them just the four of us before they enlisted and while they were in the thick of defending their decisions, and explained to them that we both know people who have been in, and how those girls, graduating at the tops of their classes and smart as whips, will outnumber the majority of the people they serve with. The military is not a think tank, it’s not where MENSA sends its biggest and brightest. It’s for cogs and pawns, not beautiful, smart, funny, amazingly kind young women. It should be, but it isn’t. They will be outnumbered for so many reasons. But none of that worked and it was the last time I tried to introduce that kind of logic. So since then, we’ve shut up and just let them tell us how it is. We ask the questions that hopefully aren’t being asked of them by every person that sees them, we write letters and text when we know they have their phones, and just hope. We hope they have higher ups who pluck them for whatever their calling will be. We have inflated confidence that they won’t see combat. We hope they can see one another wherever they wind up but it’s not looking likely, one will probably go to specialty training in the Mojave desert and the other on the east coast.
We don’t know when we’re going to see them again and that is hard, harder on their parents than the rest of us no doubt, but it’s the not knowing anything that’s the worst. They are so driven and sure of their choices, and excelling at them, even. The first niece to finish weapons training received a commendation from her CO and the company, top 5% of the class, for her attitude, leadership, wisdom, and determination. This does not surprise me at all, at least one of them will wind up in the top of her class when it’s all over, that’s just the kind of students they are. We have no choice but to support them because they are ours, we love them deeply.
Some members of my family sport Marine t-shirts and have applied stickers to their cars. I can’t say that will be Dylan and me. Frankly, that is not a fraternity I want in on. We support them, not the organization. But I am struggling with how to balance the two, particularly after I have seen so much hurt over that horrible “love the sin/hate the sinner” approach to gays and the religious right. I can’t be presumed to be one of those, no way. If it’s the difference between hurting those girls with my perceived non-support and sticking a bulldog sticker on the car, the sticker gets stuck. It’s more important for them to feel loved and their backs had by family than for me to tell the world that I pretty much detest all things military, right? Right. We’re all struggling with this in our ways and it’s forcing all of us to take hard looks at how we got to this point and what to do about it now.
I gotta go. I’m texting with Twin #2 before she begins field training tomorrow, coincidentally that’s when the other one finishes that same training. I haven’t heard if that one is coming home right away or not but I dearly, very much hope so. Ooh Rah.