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What to do When Your Teen Wants to Enlist in the Military

photo by James J. Lee

photo by James J. Lee

Your teen has finally become a high school senior! Congratulations!! Now all the hard work and preparation for adulthood has come to a peak! They will be caught up in a whirlwind of planning and preparing for that one final step to adulthood...graduation! You are so excited and then...your teen says, "Mom, Dad, I want to enlist! I talked to the recruiter today at school." You try to hide the horror in your heart with a pasted on smile and say, "Really??" When, not so deep inside, you want to scream, "You've GOT to be kidding me!!!" While you pretend to hear their well-rehearsed response, take a deep breath and think before you go completely off the deep end. I have two sons who each gave me the above scenario. We have all survived, intact. You want to know what to do when your teen wants to enlist in the military? I did too, hopefully sharing our story will help. Please understand that I realize some of you may be dealing with a daughter making this choice. I was fortunate enough to only deal with my sons on this issue. I still believe the overall concepts will be helpful.

One son was the child who had wanted to be a Marine since he was 5 years old. Ever since the day two Marines helped to push our dead mini-van out of an intersection, he would say, "when I grow up and become a Marine......." and finish with whatever was going on in his little head at the time. He was strong-minded and solid. He was constantly on the go, always busy, always doing something. He was a football player, farmhand, and all around outdoor kind of guy. He was always searching for something to fix, break or try out. He spent many nights camping, hunting or working on cars. For him, it made sense. That or he did a wonderful job of giving me 12 years of transitioning into it!

The other was my "baby"! My small, sweet child so full of laughter and hugs that even when he was gone to Gramma's, he was missed. He was the child that I opened my own preschool for, so he would have that experience and I would have a little more time with him before he grew up! He would check with Mom before making any decision, always wanting to please. He would rather be with family than friends, "cuz we just do things differently I guess." He was a planner, a saver, a person who liked things a certain way. Things had a place and they were in it in his room. He had a steady girlfriend and a job. For him, I was panicked! To be honest, I was terrified!! It was NOT the life for him! Just ask me - I am his Mother! I know these things!

I spent many years raising my children to make their own decisions. However, it was hard for me to relinquish control over this one. I tried to involve them in as many decisions and plans as possible over the years, so I knew they would know how to make a good decision but could I let them? Can you let your child make and follow their own decision about enlisting? Here are some things I did to help my sons each make an informed decision about their future.

The first thing I did was sit down with my son and talk to him about the importance of making an "informed decision" about his future. I promised to consider all the information and respect his decision, but made them each aware that i would NOT consent to anything before they graduated nor until they were 18. I made them promise NOT to make any decision quickly and to give it a minimum of 90 days consideration first. We talked about what they would need to understand before I would support this type of decision. I also gave them my word that if this WAS in fact the right decision for them and they could convince me to ignore my heart, I would support them 100% and without fail they would be able to count on me each step of the way every day.

Then I called the High School Principal and Counselor and asked about the Military Recruiters who had visited the school. They gave me the names and phone numbers and shared some insight on what the recruiters had been sharing with the students. I talked with my son and asked him to set up a time for the recruiter to meet me. I told him, "Let the recruiter do your work convincing me and if it is all wrong, I'll be mad at them, not you!!" He went for it! Little brother followed his example and set up an appointment before telling me in the first place.

Next, I made a list of all the reasons he should not enlist. This included everything from "Iraq is hot in the summer" to "people die." I cried. I begged him to consider that they were selling him a product. They were used car salesmen! I prayed. I prayed a lot.

Then, we met at a neutral place, Dairy Queen for one son, the U.S.M.C Recruiting Substation for the other. This gave me the opportunity to walk out and leave if I became overwhelmed. It also limited the interruptions as well. We talked about what they could offer my son, what my son wanted from the service and what the opportunities were that were available. We talked about scholarships for college and the opportunity to "see the world" as well as the chance to be a part of a unique brotherhood. Then I asked the hard questions. Did you ever NEED to talk to someone from home and couldn't? Were you ever lonely? What did you do without that you missed the most? Did you have to kill anyone and watch them die? Did you experience any of your buddies dying? Did it change you? Why should my son go through that?

The Recruiters for each branch of the armed services were completely honest. They looked my son in the eye and told them about the hard parts of serving. They told them about going for weeks, months even without hearing a voice from home. They told of eating foods that made them sick, being so hot they thought their brains were fried, and going without food for days. They shared with my sons the pain and the sacrifice. Then they shared with them the satisfaction and pride they felt when they had made it through the trials. They talked about the many places, people and lifelong friends they had made. Each son was given the entire picture. My oldest son learned he had to drop weight to even be eligible. We talked to the recruiter in May. He weighed 289 pounds. I knew he was positive that this was the right decision. I hoped he wouldn't be able to meet the weight guidelines. He had to drop 88 pounds. His weight for his height was 201 pounds. He had a year to do it, but he had to keep it off too! We all know how hard that can be! He lost 67 pounds within his 90 days that I had asked for him to wait. I knew beyond any doubt this was his heart's desire. I signed the papers. His Recruiting officer helped us to track down his father and secure his signature as well. He was on his way.

My younger son is a different story. We went through the meeting and he was still dead set on enlisting. Older brother said, "Mom, this is not for him! Make him change his mind!!" I encouraged him to attend the Poolee Activities and Events (a Poolee is a recruit in the enlistment pool who is waiting to graduate). These events and activities help them to get a taste of what it is like to attend boot camp (that's another story). His final decision came when he attended a 4 day "mock boot camp" and went 4 days without sleep. He had no contact with his family and he realized he wanted to be more connected than that allowed. He really was a family man. He admires his big brother and stays actively involved in keeping connected with him while he is serving our country. He is currently attending college near home and working on becoming a law enforcement officer. It was the right decision for him.

Each Recruiting Substation has its own activities and levels of involvement for parents. My sons wanted to be Marines and so that is what I know to share. They had family nights for parents to see what their teens would experience. They had Drill Instructors who came and ran the Poolees through their paces. They have websites that share information for parents. The main thing to remember is IF your teen decides to enlist anyway, they need your support to make it through from the day they sign those papers until the day they return home. Get involved, ask questions, and give them your support! It is the best gift you can give your teen!

I am proud of my Marine son and just as proud of his little brother who is also following his dream. I know they are both happy with their choices, and I am glad to have been a part of it. Be true to your them in whatever their decision is and you will be happy too!

© 2011 Debbie Carey