I was privileged to do something this week that my parents never could: watch my son graduate from Basic Training.
Thirty years ago in November, I arrived at Fort McClellan as a nervous young private for Military Police One Station Unit Training, or OSUT, assigned to Charlie Company, 795th MP Battalion. I had an Airborne contract as well, meaning I was supposed to go on to Fort Benning for jump school after. I wasn’t guaranteed to be assigned to an Airborne unit, but it would have been likely.
Although I received a “Go” at all of the skill testing, I experienced a lot of trouble with Physical Training, or PT, and ended up getting “Newstarted,” or moved back several weeks in training to a new company. I actually had troubles right off the bat, and didn’t even start training with Charlie. I spent a week at Fitness Training Company in an effort to bring up my PT capability, and then transferred to Delta/795. But I didn’t improve enough at Delta, and transferred yet again, this time to Charlie Company, 40th MP Battalion.
At that point I was four weeks behind my original schedule. But the extra attention and training time helped me pass my End of Cycle PT test. My parents though elected not to come to Basic Training graduation. They felt at the time that flying down to Alabama from Ohio twice in nine weeks would be more travel than they could handle. They said they thought my graduation from MP School would be a bigger deal, so they’d come down for that.
As things turned out, I didn’t participate in Charlie/40’s graduation either, so Mom and Dad never saw either ceremony.
There was no question in my mind when Adam enlisted that I was going to his Basic Training graduation. I would have moved heaven and earth to be there. I refused to deny him something like that, especially when we didn’t get to see him off due to Army confusion about his reporting date.
I didn’t want to deny myself something like that either.
We planned to drive from Oklahoma to Columbia, S.C., and even though Fort McClellan was BRAC’d in 1999, I was glad our route would take us by the only US military installation I spent much time at.
I’ve been reminiscing about my military career ever since Adam enlisted. I shared tidbits with him in person before he shipped out and in letters after. More and more memories surfaced as my mind reconnected threads of memory. Drill Sergeant Spagnolo and the tuna-filled gas mask during the ambush on our road march. DS Atkins waking our platoon up early by playing the entire beach assault scene from Apocalypse Now over our PA system. DS Bowen convincing everyone that he was a little psycho and might snap at any moment.
Oddly, the only recruits I recall come from Delta/795, my first company. Kroes wanted to put in for armorer’s school as soon as he got to his first unit. Schreiber, my squad leader, was going to be a lifer. Doyle, my battle buddy, practically dragged me up Bain’s Gap to the Land Nav course. Wait, I just recalled one other. his name escapes me, but one of the guys I met in Fitness Training Company later showed up in C/40.
When we drove past Anniston, Ala., the shadow of Bain’s Gap shook loose dozens of snapshots in my mind from those twenty weeks of Basic Training and AIT. Disjointed and disconnected images boiled over, swamping me with waves of emotions.
The schedule at Fort Jackson let us see Adam for an on-post pass after a morning event that included the naturalization of thirty soldiers. Yes, some 3 percent of the battalion volunteered to serve a country they weren’t yet citizens of. Outstanding. Here’s the video I shot from Wednesday. Watch full-screen for the best effect.
I wasn’t ready for the emotions that followed.
We met him out on Hilton Field in the middle of his company, in the middle of his battalion. The girls found him first, and by the time his mother and I caught up with them, his baby sister had her arms firmly locked around her bubby’s neck.
A swirl of thoughts burbled through my head as I stared at him for a thirty-second eternity. He stood taller and more confidently, but still acted like the same loving brother. We spent the afternoon getting reacquainted as a family, and I was (sort of) happy to see that some things never change.
Everything hit hard the next morning.
I stared at the battalion in formation and listened to the 282d Army Band play, and the anger brewed up stunningly fast. I was pissed that my parents chose not to come to my graduation. It was a big deal to me that I had finally graduated, and it hurt that I got to stand around while everyone else hugged their families. I wasn’t the only one in that boat. But it still sucked.
The anger mixed with the guilt and shame to make a foul sludge that threatened to drown me. Why the guilt? Because I was angry at dead people. I was angry with dead people over something that happened thirty years ago that no one could do anything about now.
And I was ashamed because it was my fault. I failed the PT tests even though I had opportunities before Basic Training to get better prepared. Instead I overestimated my capabilities, and grossly underestimated the physical demands of Basic. I failed all three of my end-of-cycle PT tests with Charlie Company and three more attempts with Delta. I came within days of being discharged when I somehow earned a training waiver from the battalion commander. I still missed the graduation though, and lost my Airborne slot.
All of that was bouncing and tumbling around my mind as I walked the length of the parade field. More than once I felt the ghosts of the family veterans in step beside me. It’s not necessarily an encouraged tradition, but since the Muellers arrived in the US, almost every generation has had someone serving in the armed forces. My brother (Navy) and I. Our father (Air Force) and his brother (Army). My mother’s brother (Army) and her sister’s husband (Air Force). Diana’s side of the family has its share of veterans as well. Her dad was in the Army and two of his brothers (Army and Marines) served, as well as her grandfather.
When we caught up to him after the graduation review (the girls found him first again – how do they do that?), I stared at him for the longest time, trying to imagine how my parents would have felt thirty years ago.
Then I came to attention and saluted my son. I’m proud of you.