Love, Dad, is a real-life series of ongoing letters to my children. While these letters are intended to be read by them later in life, I feel that many of us — parents and non-parents alike — connect with the stories and moments that forever bond us to those whom we love.
In this week’s letter I explore the notion of military service by examining my own path to the military and how my views have changed since enlisting.
The decision to join the military is not one that should be made lightly. By now, you are both likely aware that I served a number of years in the Army. It’s a decision I’m happy to have made. Sure, there are the “rah rah” patriotic moments strewn about within that experience, but the best part of joining the military is that it led me to where I am today, including being married to your mama and having both of you as my little ones.
Without it, quite simply, I would not be who I am today.
After you were born something unexpected happened: People started asking me if I wanted you to – if I’d encourage you to – join the military.
The question stopped me cold in my tracks each time it was asked. One, because I had just welcomed life into this world and couldn’t believe someone was asking me to think about the potential outcome of death so soon and 2) inevitably the people asking me this question had never served in the military themselves.
How should a new parent respond to that?
Plainly and honestly, I enlisted in the Army with a romanticized view of the military in mind. It’s no surprise, really, in looking back at the books and movies I enjoyed and the decades-wide gap between 2003 and the end of the Vietnam War (the last major war the U.S. had been in). I was a voracious reader who couldn’t get enough of Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers or any number of first-hand accounts from WW2 and Vietnam… if it had to do with military history, I was reading it.
That romanticization of the military experience still lingers for me. Regardless of deployments and conflicts and the harsh realities of the world, when I look back on my time in the Army I still am drawn to the romantic and novel idea of service; the camaraderie, fighting for something bigger than myself, helping people in need and the tradition. However I also feel a tremendous amount of dissonance with this view. I know from experience that the military experience and conflict and war and turmoil are not romantic.
I also had the benefit of a grandfather - Harold, Hal, Papa - who served his entire adult life in the Air Force (first the Army Air Corps). I grew up listening to his stories and asking him questions about whichever military history book I was reading at the time and how it related to his time in service. He was, and is, my idol and hero in life - not because of his service, but because of who he was and still is to me.
For me, it wasn’t until after I enlisted and after I returned home from my first deployment overseas that my grandfather opened up about the realities of what his time in the Pacific during WW2 entailed. Perhaps he was trying to preserve youthful innocence in not telling me the full story, or maybe he himself hadn’t come to terms with it all, or he simply couldn’t share those moments with someone who hadn’t sworn an oath to service and been sent overseas to protect the good in the world. I’ll never know, but I’m glad he didn’t share that side of the story with me.
Serving the country is an honorable choice to make, though it isn’t the only honorable choice of profession you can choose. Too often I see people applauding that choice or demonizing that choice, resulting in a “thank me for my service” mentality (as if some people sign up to receive recognition, praise and accolades) or a “only the weak and/or lost sign up” (as if signing up is a signifier of low intelligence or no direction in life). Both are, in my opinion, false. Some of the most intelligent and creative people I know have served, and conversely some of the most lost people I know have served.
My response to those who ask about thrusting military service upon my children has always been noncommittal. Any decision to serve will be yours and yours alone. It is my responsibility as your father, though, to help you see the full picture of what that life entails, the hardships you may face and the brutal reality of what war and conflict really is.
Until next time.
Written August 15, 2022
Thank you for sharing your letters