Jim Smileyfirstname.lastname@example.org, (318) 487-6348
The hardest thing for my son was telling his mom he wanted to join the Louisiana Army National Guard.
The hardest part for us so far has been the 16 weeks he spent this summer at Fort Benning, Georgia for his Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training.
Last September, during his senior year at Holy Savior Menard Central High School, my son Michael made the decision that he wanted to join the National Guard. We didn't know, but he had been speaking to a recruiter, Sgt. Dale Laborde, for several months. He did well on an aptitude test at school, and the more he talked to Laborde, the more interested he became. Finally he informed us of his interest and asked us to meet Laborde in his office.
Michael has always been skilled with guns. He followed what I would call typical boy progression from shooting nerf guns and cap guns to BB guns, pellet guns and finally real guns on hunting trips. He was active in the Boy Scouts and 4-H Shooting Sports programs where he learned proper safety techniques.
As he rose through scouting and eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout, he developed a strong sense of duty to the country and community that I encouraged. As a member of the Menard football and baseball teams, he volunteered to raise and lower the American flag before and after games. His high school voted him the most patriotic. Still, his interest in the military surprised me.
As a parent, this is difficult to understand. On the one hand, you pride yourself on selfless dedication and willingness to serve. I have always had the utmost respect for the men and women of our armed forces, from active duty to reservists. They are crucial to our well-being. That said, with world events as they are now, with such a threat of terrorism, you as a parent want to protect your child from danger and not let them run away full force.
As if the initial message of his interest wasn't enough, he capped it by noting his desire to enlist as a Combat Infantryman. He wasn't looking for a desk job or a position that gets out of the way most of the time, he wanted to be a front-line soldier. In army jargon, a grunt.
Ultimately, the decision rested with Michael. We asked questions - many questions - which Sgt. Laborde patiently answered. We have tried to show all the pros and cons. Michael never wavered in his commitment and a few days later we were in Shreveport for his official inauguration ceremony.
They told us at the time that after graduation he would have to attend basic army training. But that wasSweetgone so we figured we had plenty of time to get ready. As it turned out, his senior year flew by. His graduation was mid-May. His ship date to Fort Benning, Georgia was June 5th. Not much time to relax.
For soldiers who choose not to join the infantry, initial training consists of two parts. There is 10-week Basic Combat Training (BCT - everything in the military is done with initials) followed by Advanced Individual Training (AIT) specific to the Soldier's Assigned Service (MOS). For example, heavy machine operators go to one school while chefs go elsewhere.
Infantrymen are different. You will receive nine weeks of basic training combined with five weeks of infantry training for a 14-week continuous course. Before that, the recruits are sent to a receiving unit, which carries out the initial processing.
You'd think it would only take two or three days. If, like me, you go online to research what front desk is doing, you see a four-day list of activities and think they're moving them along fast. You would be wrong. With Michael it took two weeks. He arrived on a Monday. New training cycles start every Friday, but it didn't ship that first Friday, so he had to wait another week for his 14-week clock to start ticking. Some soldiers have to wait even longer, I'm told.
We know all that now. We were pretty clueless at the time. One of the things they tell you up front is that there will be very little communication with your soldier during training, but it's not really noticeable until they get there.
We thought we were ready. Since Michael is our youngest child, we knew even before he decided to join the military that we would be dealing with empty nesters this fall when he went to college. We had tasted this with our daughter two years earlier so we thought we had that covered. Turns out we didn't. With kids in college, you can always call and talk to them. Our daughter is right down the street at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette so she can come home on the weekends or we can slip down and visit her whenever we want.
Not so with a kid in the army during basic training. In the first 12 weeks that Michael was at Fort Benning, we received three short calls from him. The first came at midnight when he got to reception. It took less than a minute. He was told to tell us he was in Fort Benning, at the front desk, and was fine.
The next call came 11 days later when we received another brief call that he was now at his basic training unit, Alpha Company 1-50, and that we would be receiving a letter with more details. We didn't get another call for eight weeks when he called briefly to let us know that the Family Day meeting time had changed. That's 12 weeks and less than 3 minutes of a phone call. That is hard.
We couldn't jump in the car to check on him, although my wife threatened to try several times. She was sure she could find a hole in a fence somewhere or a vantage point where she could look in and see Michael and make sure he was okay. I tried to explain that security would not give a friendly welcome to anyone trying to sneak in or peek in to monitor base activity. She didn't care. I mentioned that since they all dress alike and have shaved heads, even if she had a vantage point that could see them, she wouldn't be able to spot him. "I'm his mother — I would know," she said. I have to admit, the longer it took, the better her plan sounded.
What the army takes away in phone time, they try to make up for in letter writing. With email and text messaging, as well as posting updates on social media, letter writing has declined in popularity among the general population. Not so in the army. They are doing their best to ensure the survival of the US Postal Service.
My guess is that before Michael joined the military he didn't write more than two or three real letters. I know he wrote a letter to the editor and one to a congressman for the Boy Scout Badge of Merit requirements. I think he made one for a school project. But aside from being forced to write thank-you notes for birthday, Christmas, and graduation gifts, he wouldn't be seen putting pen to paper and asking for stamps.
But when it's the only way to communicate with the outside world, writing letters becomes a habit. In all, we received 26 letters from Michael during his stay at "summer camp," as we called it. I will never forget the first letter we received. He wrote it while he was at the front desk. It started with "Dear Family" and was signed "Your Loving Son, PFC Michael Smilie". I remember my wife and I both wondered where that came from. We never taught him that. We don't sign things that way. Apparently he saw this somewhere and decided that's how it should be. We've learned to love it.
As the only way to contact our son, our mailbox became the focal point of the house. I'm usually the one who checks the mail. But now it was a race to get home. Most days there was no "good" mail, but when there was, it was an event. I remember one day at the beginning of training when my wife called me from work.
"When will you be home?" She asked. I told her I wasn't sure as I have several things to do. I assumed she wanted me to pick something up on the way home. "We got mail," she said. "I want to wait until you come home so we can read it together, but I'm not sure I can wait that long. I for one hurried home, but I suspect she had opened the letter before I hung up. I can't blame her, I probably would have done the same.
I found the letters fascinating. It was also interesting to see the emotional evolution over time. In early letters one could say that he was adjusting to the new environment.
Also, initially there were many young recruits who joined the Army without doing much research or thinking as hard as Michael did. They didn't know how to behave, which would draw the wrath of the sergeants. In training, much like sports teams, if one person makes mistakes, everyone is punished. Officially, the drill sergeants call it "corrective action." The trainees call it smoking. Either way, you could sense his frustration in the early letters at all the corrective action.
As he became more confident about what to do - and as some of these less committed individuals moved on - the tone improved. We were given a few notes on tiny pieces of paper ripped from a pocket notebook. These, he explained, were written while they were taking a break out in the field. He made notes, stuffed them in a bag, and then mailed them off when he got back. One can forgive bad penmanship if it was written in a foxhole or on the side of the road after a long march.
A disadvantage of pure e-mail communication is the delay time between the letters. Letters from Michael typically arrived about four days after he posted them, based on the postmark. On his side, he received no mail until the drill sergeants decided to make a mail call. On the first postal call he received 20 letters. But the mail calls were far apart, so messages were often more than a week old before he saw them. When he mentioned something in a letter and it took us four days to get it and then another seven to get our reply, it's hard to keep the conversation going.
A short visit
While the unit he was assigned to was tough and tight on communication (it appears other units have more phone time than his company), they did have a Facebook page. We spotted it early, and once a week—usually on Fridays, but sometimes later when they were too busy—they would post photos of the week's activities.
I had set up an alert so I was notified whenever there was an update to the page and we searched each photo for Michael. Most of the time we didn't find him. We found him with an early shot. It was a clear frontal shot of him emerging from the chemical assault chamber, eyes burning and gasping for air. Exactly how you want your child to look.
Over the next week I found a shot that looked like it was lying on the ground shooting at a target. I blew up the photo as much as I could, and I thought I could read SMILIE on the name stripe on the back of his hat. I wasn't 100% sure, but I shared the photo on Facebook hoping I was right. Someone from Alpha Company saw the post and replied, "Sir, yes it is." That made my day.
You would think that as a parent you would know your child in every situation. But I can tell you, if they all dress alike and they all have their heads shaved bald and they all wear goggles, a lot of them look pretty similar. I feel awful now when Michael points to a picture I tagged on Facebook that I thought was him and he says it's another kid. But at the time, I felt good when I thought I'd seen him. Inecessaryto see him.
A constant theme in his letters was counting down the days until he could see us. The program includes a short three-day break called Family Day. It falls on the weekend between the end of the nine-week basic training and the beginning of the five-week infantry-specific training. As the weeks went by, this weekend became the most important date of the year for us and we could tell it was going to be huge for Michael too.
Fort Benning is a 91/2 hour drive from Alexandria plus you lose an hour being in the Eastern time zone. Nevertheless, Michael's girlfriend and two of his schoolmates wanted to make the trip with us.
Since Michael was in the Army, I decided to treat the trip like a military event - Operation Taste of Freedom. Our goal was to give him as much fun as possible during his short training break. From his letters we learned that Michael was dying to have a hamburger and an old milkshake. He was fed up with MREs and wanted some real food. He also wanted to visit the National Infantry Museum and show us the Sand Hill Proving Grounds at Fort Benning.
Thanks to the internet, we were able to track down a few places with old-fashioned burgers and shakes that he was craving, and a friend who was previously stationed in Fort Benning pointed us to a great BBQ spot.
When the day of departure came, my wife was the first in the car. It didn't matter that we couldn't see him that day. The sooner she was in the same zip code with Michael, the better. We were told to call in at 0800 - which is 8am civilian time - on a Friday for a parents' meeting. Although I don't get in until 11pm. The night before, my wife got up at 5:00 am. We got to the meeting place an hour early - long before people were ready to let people into the hall. Can you say eager? As the meeting began, the officer conducting the briefing confirmed, "I will hurry, as I know I am not the one you are here for," to which my wife nodded vigorously in agreement. "If you know that, then why are you leaving us sitting here," she whispered to me. "Let's go!"
Usually when we travel together we all stay together. Not this time. My wife ran ahead when we were released to go to the field where we could meet up with our boys. To her credit, I admire her restraint, which persisted in the field when the company marched in. As scared as she was, as soon as she saw Michael in formation, I could see a calm cross her face. Her baby was here and he was fine.
I strongly encourage anyone planning to visit a soldier during the Family Day holiday to bring one of his friends with you if possible. While his mom, sister, and I all wanted to have his alone time, the dynamic of having friends there made a real difference. Had it been just one family, there probably would have been some pauses in the conversation. But with his friends there, the stories just flowed. He was able to relax and share what he had been doing and they were able to keep him up to date on things at home much better than my wife and I could have done. It was a great three days off for all of us, which made it much easier to cope with the prospect of another five weeks of training.
The downside, if there was one, is that it adds a bit to the homesickness. In his first letter after Family Day, Michael mentioned that many of the boys were really homesick after seeing their friends and family. If he was homesick, Michael didn't admit it. But he's started a new countdown clock to completion.
It was terribly difficult for us to drive home. Remember how my wife couldn't wait to head to family day? Well, she was the last to invite for the ride home. It was hard letting go of that last hug in the parking lot. It helped that we saw him and knew he was fine and doing well, but another five weeks seemed like an eternity to us when we got back to Louisiana.
As soon as we got home, we began to make our plans for the return trip. To stay on the military theme, I needed a new operation name. During our visit with Michael, we learned many key terms they use when dealing with "corrective action" and adversity. Collectively they call it "the suck," and the Drill Sergeants encourage trainees to "embrace the suck" rather than fight it. Knowing this, it became a breeze - the final journey would be Operation Escape The Suck.
This trip would be a lot easier. First, we knew exactly where we were going and how to get around Fort Benning. We would also take fewer people since his friends were free from college. But that was fine. Graduation is much shorter so not much time to visit friends.
On Thursday there was a Turning Blue ceremony where soldiers were presented with a special cord to wear on their shoulder, identifying them as infantrymen. I actually got to put it on Michael, which was quite an honor for me. They were then given a pass to visit family that afternoon, but they had to be back by 6pm. Michael wanted to go back to the Infantry Museum and an off-base restaurant that served the Ranger Burger, which is something of an initiation rite for infantry graduates at Fort Benning. It's a full 1 pound burger with all the trimmings. Add in a trip to the basic exchange for last minute shopping and that was all we had time.
The graduation ceremony was nice and short at only one hour. A band was playing. There was a short fire brigade demonstration. The soldiers marched in formation onto the field. Their commander made a short speech and the soldiers marched off the field. That was it.
Almost. Drill sergeants love making soldiers do push-ups. Commanding her charges into the forward-leaning rest position, which is the push-up position, is one of her favorite commands. On Family Day, when each platoon performed a marching routine, Michael's platoon was the only one doing push-ups as part of their exercise. So it came as no shock when the drill sergeants looked at the graduating soldiers ready to be discharged and yelled "Graduates, front lehning rest position" one last time and did a final set of push-ups in front of the counted infantry museum.
The slogan for Michael's training company is "Play the Game". It was a tough, challenging game and many didn't make it through to the end. The commander noted in his speech that they had the highest turnover rate of any training class. More than 30 percent of those who began training dropped out, were cut back, or "recycled," as the Army calls it, being sent back to start over. It's a tough game, but I'm proud to say that my son successfully completed it.
When we asked Michael what he thought of the experience, he replied, "It was the best thing I never want to do again."
I agree with him.