An Outreach Program of MarineParents.com
Being a Marine is hard, but rewarding. The journey is exceptionally tough, but when you look back you usually find the challenges you faced were worth it. The same may be said for being the parent of a Marine.
More than four years ago, my two sons left for boot camp at Parris Island. They had a vague idea of what to expect and so did we. For my sons, I think the reality was quite different. I know it was for us as Marine parents. That’s because in both instances until you live it, there’s little chance of really understanding it.
One thing I’m sure of: I don’t have all the answers. But I do have a better understanding, and am happy to share that information with all of you.
And now three pieces of advice:
1.) Use these boards to find out the information you need to be the best Marine parent you can be. The people who run and monitor these boards truly have “been there and done that” and they are happy to help you in your journey. So are the “senior parents” who are a couple of years – or longer – into the task of being parent to a Marine.
2.) Remember to enjoy life. Sure, you raised them, but they are Marines now, or well on their way to becoming Marines. That means they have their lives to live and you have yours. Your expectations and theirs are going to be different, so don’t try to fight it. Just remind them that you are there to help – if need be.
3.) What follows is based on my experiences and observations, not only of my sons, but their buddies and other Marines I know or have been privileged to know. Use it as a guide if you wish, but remember each Marine is a unique individual -- and so are his or her experiences. In other words, take what follows with a grain of salt.
Boot Camp and After
The Behavior You Witness: They've won their EGAs and feel – when they come home for that first leave – that they're due a little relaxation for all their hard work. Being around civilians may irritate them so if you take them out to restaurants don’t be surprised if they seem reserved. After all, they now find themselves surrounded by sloppy civilians.
Sometimes new Marines think they have an image to live up to -- if not for themselves, then for the friends they left back home. This can lead to lots and lots of partying, the occasional fistfight and migraines for parents. New Marines also are prone to wearing T-shirts with skulls printed on them.
The Letters They Write from Boot Camp: The early letters may be filled with bravado, the middle letters full of self-pity (and I don’t blame them) and the last letters will be filled with a growing sense of pride and self-assuredness that almost leaps off the page and grabs you by the lapels. After all, few people even attempt to do what they are striving to do: become U.S. Marines. Take the first letters (the bravado and the self-pity) with a grain of salt.
The Stories You Hear: Don’t expect much. They’ve already begun to learn that the advertising motto “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” applied to the Corps long before. So you can expect a few humorous anecdotes, a few general replies to your questions. They’ll tell you the food was good (or bad, depending on how hungry they are), the barracks hot (or cold, depending on the time of year), the chapel services great (and one of the few places they could just sit without worrying that someone was going to yell at them), the Crucible an awesome experience. They might even tell you a little bit about the quarter-deck where DIs inspire their recruits with push-ups, squat-thrusts, sit-ups and other morale builders. They won’t tell you how, after an evening shower, they put back on their sweaty workout shorts and T-shirt because that way they’re already dressed for morning exercises. And they won’t describe sleeping on top of their already made rack (bed) so they don’t have to waste time in the morning making it up. They know you just wouldn’t understand.
Extended Schooling and After
The Behavior You Witness: Right after their extended schooling is when they begin to realize that while they are Marines, they are standing on the bottom rung of the ladder. Many still think they have an image to live up to, especially at home, and some try to do it with drinking. Chances for fistfights still exist, and parents can still be sure of migraines. They don't wear the motto-type T-shirts anymore, at least not on and around base. That would surely mark them as “boots.”
The Stories You Hear: You’ll hear more grousing, either about waiting for a class to form or the instructors who gave everybody a hard time because some guy tried to sneak in a cell phone. They’ll talk about the tests and the hikes. They might even talk about the guy who fainted in the heat during a hike, woke up on a cot with his pants down while riding a silver bullet (a rectal thermometer) with a couple of bags of ice scattered on him and later was denied a weekend pass because he damaged government property by splitting his lip when he fainted and fell on his face. (Hint: Your Marine may even be talking about himself.)
The Language He Uses: Do you remember when – years ago – your Marine was a little fellow and let slip a word he heard on the school playground? You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? A word that was a gear or two lower than darn, right? Shocking, wasn’t it? But you sat down and had a talk about how some words should never be used because, well, they’re kind of naughty. And your future Marine nodded solemnly and didn’t use the word again until he overheard your exclamation after you banged your thumb with the hammer while trying to hang a new picture on the wall. Well, relax. He’s way beyond that now.
That’s because there is one word, one all-purpose, all-too-descriptive word, which has entangled itself in nearly every conversation used by your Marine and his fellow Devil Dogs. It’s an adjective, it’s an adverb, it’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s even a pro-noun (thereby losing its amateur status). It’s an all-purpose word that few Marines can avoid in their daily conversation. And while that may be well and good in the desert, or on-board ship, it’s a word that also is going to slip out when your Marine is talking with you – either on the phone, or in person. It’s just going to happen.
Now that you know to expect it, you can decide on how to deal with it: ignore it, remind your Marine that you have house rules and even warriors have to obey them, or find a compromise. (Just realize you’re not going to be able to stick a bar of soap in his mouth anymore. After all, he is a Marine.) I’m merely saying you should expect what one of my high school teachers called an “F-bomb” at some point. Consider these words your air-raid siren.
Permanent Duty Station
The First Year: They're learning that they're still boots to the senior Marines, guys who've done at least one deployment, especially in a hot zone. They don't get home all that much, which means the parental migraine count is drastically reduced since we don't know what they're doing in their off-hours, unless they start posting photos on Facebook. Sometime during this year they will go off on a 72 with their new buddies, usually to a motel near a beach and have a pretty good time -- the kind we parents don't want to know about. (The guys who fall asleep first, by the way, stand a good chance of waking up with pictures drawn on their face and head with a magic marker.)
Marines and Women: A Marine in his dress blues is what’s known as a number one chick magnet. Always has been, always will be. Even without the dress blues these guys are attractive to lots and lots of women, ranging from age 3 to 93. But toddlers and grandmothers aside, it’s the ones in the late teens to early 20s who are the most alluring to your Marine, and vice-versa. If you’re a Marine mom this can be hard to take. After all you gave birth to him and raised him. Right? Why does he call her, write to her, and want to spend more time with her than you and the rest of your family? Well, it’s Nature taking place, right before your very eyes. Just take a deep breath and remember that if you choose to compete for your Marine’s attention this is a battle you most likely are going to lose. Invite the woman who has your Marine’s eye into your life, too. Who knows? You might even like her, or better yet, grow to love her as your Marine does. (A personal note: my two Marines got married while in the Corps – each to a great young woman he had known for years. My wife and I couldn’t be prouder of them or our daughters-in-law.)
Tattoos: Sooner or later you, as a Marine parent, are going to face the issue of tattoos. Not every Marine gets them, but most will, and the time many Marines switch from thinking about getting body art to actually visiting a tattoo parlor usually happens after they get assigned to their permanent duty station. (Some of the nation’s best tattoo artists live comfortable lives near Marine Corps bases.) If you sport tattoos yourself, this is not a big deal. If you think they are the mark of Cain, or something worse, well then you are going to be upset. Again, the words Semper Gumby apply. Many new Marines get either bulldogs or Eagle, Globe and Anchor tattoos, or something along the lines of “Semper Fidelis” or “Death Before Dishonor.” Those who have been in a while, especially the combat vets, get tats with more personal meanings. One Marine I know, the recipient of a Purple Heart, has the names of all his buddies who died in combat inked on his arm. Still another Marine wears on his back the name of a fellow Marine who, quite literally, had his back during a perilous assignment in the Iraqi desert. And that other Marine wears the first Marine’s name on his back. Those are badges of honor that mean more than any of us can probably understand. And give thanks you don’t.
The Attitude and Behavior You Witness: Don’t get your feelings hurt if they start to pull away from you. This is normal. Just when you want to grab them and hug them the hardest, they begin exhibiting a hands-off behavior. It’s simple, really; they’re getting ready to go into combat, getting ready – emotionally and mentally – to do a job that requires all their dedication and training. That leaves little room for the family they’re leaving behind. Please understand. You want them focused 100 percent on the job they are going to be doing. (Also understand: they might be doing some heavy partying; a sort of kiss-the-girls-and-say-goodbye philosophy that men going off to war have exhibited since Alexander decided to whip the Syrians.)
Deployment and After
While They're Deployed: Parental migraines and worry, naturally, are sky high. There is no partying, no merry-making for our Marines, who go about their jobs with superb skill and confidence. The senior Marines who they felt were looking down on them throughout the last year turn out to be pretty good guys who not only share their packages from home, including fresh socks and home-baked cookies, but teach them a few new tricks for staying alive.
And you want to do something for them, just like when they were recruits in boot camp, right? Here you go: send them lots of letters and packages, and pray. As far as the praying goes, well that’s between you and your Creator. As far as the packages, find out from your Marine the names of some of his buddies who don’t get much mail or seem to have anybody who cares about them (there are always a couple). Then send them packages, too.
Communications from Your Marine: Just like when they were in boot camp, don’t expect much, especially if they’re in combat. You’ll get a couple of letters, maybe a phone call or two. Be glad for what you get. And keep praying.
Homecoming and After
When They're Home From Deployment: They're different now, including -- unfortunately -- sadder at times. They like to wear unassuming shirts and jeans, they get their high-and-tight every week and sometimes -- depending on what happened to them on deployment -- they'll drink to excess. Sometimes it's because they just want to party again and catch up on living in the free world; other times because they're trying to self-medicate with booze. (Parental migraines can go sky high here, too.)
What to Expect: The advice I have to offer is simple. To wit, whatever they are, lower your expectations. You turned out to welcome him home, you made banners proclaiming your love and pride, you rushed up and hugged him and wondered if you could ever let go. That’s great, but don’t push your plans and expectations on your Marine. In fact, don’t expect too much out of him or her. To do so would be unrealistic and maybe even selfish. Let’s face it, what you and your family and your friends want is not necessarily what he’s going to want – or need. Sure, everyone’s going to want to see him, cheer him, and hug him. And sometimes that’s exactly what he doesn’t want. You have to understand, he’s seen – and sometimes had to do – things he’s going to have a hard time reconciling to the world in which you live. As he sees it he no longer necessarily lives in that world.
Marines and Their Money: Now that they’re home, they find themselves with more cash to spend than they ever had before in their lives. When my sons came home from their first deployment they fell into the typical pattern. One went for new clothes – you wear the same clothes for weeks at a time and use baby wipes to clean yourself, he said, and when you get the chance for new duds you take it. The other – an outdoorsman – invested in new fishing and hunting equipment. A friend wisely pointed out that the purchases were not unusual, merely a way for them to reaffirm they were still alive and active in the world. And there’s a reason there are lots of auto dealerships flourishing around Marine bases. (Be sure to tell them if they have the itch to buy new wheels that you would be glad to offer your car-buying expertise to them. That way you can steer them away from the high-interest guys who make a nice living off your son and his buddies.)
The Stories You Hear: The stories your Marines do share with you are watered down. They have to be. How can you sit on a couch in the home in which you were raised and explain to your mother or father how one of your best buddies took the lead on a patrol one hot day and stepped on an IED? How do explain how you helped carry him back because Marines never leave one of their own on the field of battle or what it was like when he got back to base and there was his buddy’s gear on his rack, the one next to his? How do you explain to people that the little kids they see on the street remind them of the children their enemy used as shields in battle? They feel they need to protect us, so they don’t say much or they water down what did happen. And they fear we might – even inadvertently – judge them with our civilian rules of behavior.
A Year After: Things have settled down. Your Marine is now a senior Marine, someone who has been places, done things and knows what’s going on. And they're scratching their heads and wondering what in heck is going on at Parris Island or at San Diego, because these new boots they're seeing have to be the dumbest kids ever.
And so it goes. Good luck.