I’m a blue star mom. This banner on my house means that I have a close family member who is currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. It was on my house from 2014 to 2018, had a break for a couple of years, then went back up again in the summer of 2020.
It’s uncommon to have a son or daughter serving in the military. Only two percent of high schoolers choose to enlist or pursue officer training. Each spring, when the rounds of “So, what’s [your son/daughter] going to do after graduation?” begin among moms, if your answer is Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard, whether officer or enlisted, eyes will open wider and jaws may drop.
Back in 2014, when I began telling people that our oldest son was planning to enlist in the Marines directly out of high school, the most common reaction I got from other moms surprised me. The look of concern, the furrowed brow, the leaning in to quietly ask, “And how do you feel about that?”
The first several times I was asked this question, in this particular way, I was confused. Was I supposed to be sad? Worried? Upset? I genuinely felt none of these things. Wait … did my lack of worry make me a bad mom? (Yes, the mom-guilt was still strong even after nearly two decades of parenting.)
Brushing the self-doubt aside, I soon learned to smile and say something like, “I’m so proud of him! I’m happy that he’s going to be doing something he’s really excited about.” Because, you know, the moms seemed a little sad for me and maybe that would cheer them up.
Make no mistake—I fully understood the challenges ahead of my son. The grueling physical training in the Marines. Being yelled at every waking moment and having almost no autonomy in boot camp. Not coming home for months or years at a time. And of course, the ever-present possibility of being deployed to a dangerous area or the declaration of war.
But I also understood the positives: the clear focus and purpose that military service provided, the opportunity for adventure (which is incredibly appealing to many young people), and the “rules and regulations” that would help keep him from making poor decisions that are so common among 18- to 21-year-olds (my younger self included). Not to mention a dependable, paying job, career possibilities with early retirement, and excellent educational benefits after leaving active duty. There are worse things that a person can commit to at the age of 18, especially if they don’t want to go to college (or at least, not yet) or have no idea what they “want to be.”
So I was hopeful, not sad. Proud, not worried.
I stayed calm even when my son tried hard to be assigned to infantry (the main land combat force … he was put into communications instead). This was his dream, not mine. This was his story, not mine.
He was eventually sent to Japan and we didn’t see him for almost two years. Today’s technology makes a long separation much easier than in times past, and I was grateful for that. Then after another year in Japan, he finished his four-year commitment and came back to the U.S. At 22, he was older, more mature, and had more life experience that enabled him to make better decisions about his future, which included taking advantage of the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill.
And then it happened again.
In 2019, our middle son was a senior in high school and restless. He was constantly seeking out new things to do and new things to learn. Sadly, nothing he wanted to learn was taught at his high school, so he began attending a tech school part time. This was infinitely better than academics for seven hours a day, but still, he was restless. This didn’t surprise me one bit, because he’d been relentlessly on the move since he was a baby.
Like his brother, this son had no interest in college (at least, not yet). Nor in keeping his same auto mechanic job at a local repair shop. Nor in going to trade school with the goal of working at a dealership. We explored all of these options, and none of them were right.
He started talking to recruiters and quickly realized that of all the military branches, the Army was the best fit for him. He enlisted with our blessing (and our relief that he had a direction, honestly). Just a few months later, COVID entered the picture and we missed out on so many milestones, from his high school graduation to his Airborne School graduation, where we would have normally been able to see him make his final jump from a C-130 aircraft before receiving his wings.
But despite the wrench COVID threw into things, he’s happy and doing well, now stationed stateside with the promise of more family visits than his older brother had. And the blue star, which had been on our house for four years and then spent some time in the basement catching its breath, is back up.
Ten or twenty years ago, did we ever think we’d be a military family? Not at all. My bookish husband and I sometimes look at each other and wonder, how are we the parents of a Marine and a soldier? We both spent our entire childhoods reading and being picked last for P.E. So we have no idea.
Parenthood, as we’ve found with all four of our children, quickly moves from “Here, let me teach you/show you/take care of you in every possible way” to “Wow, this is an incredibly competent human being we’ve somehow created, and we’re blown away by the amazing and unique person they’ve become.”
I’ve had many more years now to consider that concerned question about military enlistment, “And how do you feel about that?” I can honestly say, I love that blue star banner and what it stands for. I’m proud to have it back on my house. Sometimes raising them with the purpose of letting them go (which is ultimately what we all have to do) means letting them go into a story that surprises you.