Almost a decade ago, I gave a speech at an Operation Welcome Home celebration in northern Indiana. The speech was about 20 minutes in length, and nothing very remarkable, but I had sweated over the details because I wanted to send a message to all parents — past, present & future — who had ever watched with a mixture of pride and fear as their son or daughter joined the military. I wanted to make those parents feel proud and I wanted to tell them that their child’s service was appreciated and important (as if they needed to be told?)
At the time, my son Michael was 13, and his fondest wish was to become a military pilot. In my speech that day, I talked about Michael’s dream and about my own blend of swelling heart and nagging apprehension. I wanted the audience to know that, even though I wasn’t exactly in their shoes yet, I “got it.” But I didn’t. Not really.
I wrote that speech with the comforting detachment of a 10-year buffer zone. I knew Michael had all kinds of time to develop new interests, change his mind, chart a new course. Heck, when I was 13, I wanted to be a movie star, a game warden and a talk show host…you see how well that worked out!
So my words that day, however well-intentioned, were delivered from the outside looking in. I didn’t know what those parents were going through and, in my heart of hearts, I could tell myself that I might never know…that there was “still time” for other options.
Perhaps I should have known better. Afterall, Michael’s grandfather on his Dad’s side was a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army, and one of his Uncles had attended the Citadel, while another served as a linguist for the Army. And, although my family didn’t have a lengthy military history, Michael’s formative years were steeped in veteran-related projects and people. He watched me work for several years on a book about a Vietnam veteran, and sometimes he accompanied me to the office and encountered a cadre of irascible old military pilots at the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He forged a lifelong friendship with my then-boss and later business partner, Lt. Col. Mike Jackson, USAF (Ret), and, he watched — even volunteering occasionally — as I organized veterans’ celebrations or assisted vets and their families with VA benefits.
Guilt sometimes gnawed at me…perhaps I was unconsciously pushing him toward the military? We seemed to live, eat and breathe the topic — but, as patriotic as I was, and as proud of our men and women in uniform, I could continue to comfort myself in the dark of night that “he still has time” to choose a new path.
Even as he graduated from high school and started college, joining Air Force ROTC, I reassured myself that there was “still time.” Even as I watched world events continue to deteriorate, I could breathe a silent sigh of relief that there was “still time.”
But as I struggled with my doubts, Michael grew in his resolve. He switched from Air Force to Army ROTC (the Air Force didn’t let him roll around in the dirt as much as he wanted to). Then he took on the task of resurrecting the Pershing Rifle Society on his college campus. He began attending Army leadership conferences and coming home with awards and ribbons. The Army gave him a scholarship, and his commanders and peers acknowledged him as a disciplined and solid leader.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that the time I’d been counting on for all those years was finally running out.
Five weeks from Saturday, that last grain of sand will slip through the hourglass, as Michael graduates college and is commissioned into the United States Army as a 2nd Lt. My old pal Col. Jackson will commission him and deliver his first “official salute” (apparently the Colonel holds no grudge at Michael’s defection from blue to green.) And, when it’s all said and done, my baby boy will be “Lt. Engel.”
Even typing these words gives me a lump in my throat that is equal parts pride and undefined emotion. How did the time pass so quickly? When did that scrawny tow-headed kid become a muscle-bound GI in camo and boots? And when did I become the very parent I was lecturing to on that sunny afternoon in Indiana so many years ago?
And, although Michael long-ago gave up his pilot dreams (hereditary vision issues nipped that in the bud), he just couldn’t quite manage to choose a military vocation that a mother could fool herself into calling “safe.” No, he had to campaign for — and get — a slot at EOD school…that’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Ever seen “The Hurt Locker“? Well, I haven’t and it will be a cold day in Hell now before I do!
So, what do I do as I spiral — half joyful, half fearful — into this new role as “Blue Star Mother?” Well, I guess I take the only action that has ever really been mine to take — I trust in God and I pray for Michael’s safety, as I’ve always prayed for those who serve. For a control freak like me, putting all my trust in God — and in Michael — is easy to say and hard to do. And, yet, neither one has ever disappointed me.
Time finally ran out on that 10 year stretch when anything was possible, but, in a few weeks, I get to flip the hourglass back over and watch my son embark on his chosen career with a conviction that inspires and humbles me. And all I have to do is love him, support him, and finally LIVE the words of that speech I wrote so long ago.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9