Updated: Jun 6, 2020
This article has been guest written by the talented and awesome Ms. Jolene, a Marine Mom from Wisconsin. Her son, Slade, is currently serving on active duty as an infantryman.
The Armed Forces recruiting pamphlets started to show up on his bedroom floor when he was 16. At that point, I did not ask about them. When he mentioned that he spoke to a recruiter at his high school, I started to pay attention. Soon after, we were at the dining room table together, with United States Marine Corps booklets spread out in front of us.
“Please tell me why you want to do this,” I said.
“The Marines are the most highly trained fighting force in the world,” he answered.
Not exactly what a mom wants to hear.
He immediately attempted to reassure me. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” he said.
“Actually,” I replied, “I have everything to worry about. You are my son.”
And the tears stung.
Here’s a little insight into Slade’s personality. He has a distinct awareness of right and wrong, and yet enjoys pushing the envelope with a good prank. I was often asked, “Did you hear what Slade did?” followed by a tamed-down version of his latest antics. He is fiercely loyal and yet quick to call BS when he sees it. He is a gifted story-teller, often including spot-on impressions of its characters. I admire his wit, thoughtfulness, and self-confidence. Raising him has not always been easy, but it has always been interesting!
We attended the delayed enlistment swearing-in ceremony in June, 2018. It was my first experience with what would become a familiar dichotomy of emotions: the simultaneous existence of terror and of immense pride. It was at once the swell of admiration and the crush of grief; the desire to wrap this 17 year-old man-child in a hug, and then to shake him.
And the tears welled.
In the year following swearing in, which was Slade’s senior year, the days seemingly fast-forwarded toward his ship date. He stayed in touch with his recruiter and did PT with his Poolee group. He became increasingly focused on preparing for boot camp.
Meanwhile, I was feeling heartbroken. It felt as though there wasn’t enough time. How could I possibly get all the lessons and love and advice and guidance and caring in before he left? I carried this weight daily, and can only describe it as a gnawing ache.
And the tears fell.
There were times when Slade saw the tears. Although I feel that it’s important for our kids to know that showing emotion is healthy, I did not want him to feel guilty for choosing this path. So, along with tearful conversations, there were objective discussions about his decision. There were also expressions of amazement and pride and awe, which he usually met with humble acceptance.
I worried. I worried about his physical safety and about his mental health. I worried that his personality would be lost. I worried that I would lose him entirely. I worried that he wouldn’t make it through boot camp, and I also worried that he would.
Slade reassured me. “It’s gonna suck, Mom, but I’ll be fine.” He never wavered in his determination to become a United States Marine. His gentle calmness brought me peace. We had raised him up to be independent, and he was doing just that.
We said our “see you soons” in a hotel parking lot on a Sunday evening. As I hugged him, I focused on remembering exactly how he felt. He was dressed in a green collared shirt and belted jeans, and he carried only his driver’s license, $20, and a pocket Bible. We watched him walk away until we could no longer see him, maintaining composure in case he needed us to. He did not look back.
And the tears poured.
Around midnight on Monday, Slade called his dad to read the scripted information about his arrival to MCRD San Diego. Slade’s dad called me to relay the message. And then came the first of many gifts during this journey.
“Slade sounded like he was smiling,” he said.
And I wept. Funny, though—I laughed at the same time.
He was on his way.
After Slade left, something pretty amazing happened. As I knew my son was continuing a journey toward his long-standing goal, I became stronger. The continuous waves of sadness gave way to distinct pride and excitement. While for almost two years I had dreaded his departure, I could now look forward to celebrating his amazing achievement.
Once we received the mailing address from his DI, I sent Slade the letter I had been working on since his ship date. It was nine pages long! I later learned that recruits can become overwhelmed by too-frequent or too-lengthy letters as their time to read and respond is extremely limited. From then on, I did my best to avoid overloading him with pages to read and to reply to.
Slade’s first letter arrived about three weeks after he left. “Jeez, where do I start?” he wrote. He talked about respecting the DIs and, “living chow to chow.” He encouraged us to, “stay happy and positive.” And another gift: he wrote about how much he loved and missed us.
In this first letter, as well as many subsequent ones, homesickness was a common theme. “The hardest part is being away from home,” he wrote. “We pick each other up when we are thinking about it.” Slade’s recruiter had been honest with him about how debilitating homesickness could be. Knowing this allowed him an awareness and ownership of the emotion. He knew it would happen, he knew others were experiencing it, and he knew it would get better. And thankfully, it did.
The new house rule was that whoever got the mail could open a letter from Slade, regardless of whom it was addressed to. The letters were such a gift, each read countless times, each cried and laughed over. If I worried about his personality fading, it was unfounded, as worry often is. True to form, he wrote:
“Boot camp is the funniest place you can’t smile!”
“We had to bite our lips not to laugh!”
And my favorite, “DI says I’ve got a badass name but I still look like a dork!”
Our letters to Slade were filled with household updates, sports news, song lyrics, funny stories, and questions. He had asked for, “no bad news while I’m gone.” We honored that request and kept things light. I enclosed a few small photographs and was touched when he replied that they made him feel closer to home. I was amazed when he later requested the lyrics to “Neon Moon.” He could not possibly have known that I had changed my ringtone to that very song just a week earlier.
I ended each letter with, “I love you, I’m proud of you, stay strong, and keep kicking ass!”
Slade became a United States Marine in September, 2019. Seeing him for the first time in 13 weeks was awe-inspiring and humbling. I sobbed. We all did. There is nothing quite like seeing your son transform from Poolee to Marine.
When he was released to us on Family Day, during the jubilant chaos of hundreds of families searching for their new Marine, one of our daughters recorded our reunion. The video caught smiles, tears, hugs, and exclamations of, “You did it!”
The video also captured Slade’s summary of boot camp. With a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye, again true to form, he said, “Well, that sucked!”
We spent that day and the next listening to Slade talk about boot camp, soaking in everything he had to tell us. He had earned the title United States Marine. He was, and remains, very humble about this.
But as his mom, I can’t help but think that he kicks ass.