By Sandra Danderson
I remember as a child being completely fascinated with two of my uncles. Both had served in the Army. One was an infantry soldier who fought in Vietnam; the other was a Special Forces soldier. Both suffered from extreme PTSD. My father had been drafted into the Army during Vietnam, but he went AWOL. When I talk about my family and my individual relationships with these family members, people tend comment on how it affected my decision to join. I had never thought it was a factor until now. My oldest son recently left home to serve in the Navy. Just like my enlistment came as an upsetting event to my family members, my son’s enlistment has cut me to my core.
I could think during the difficult periods of my enlistment was that I was doing this so that my sons would never have to. I was making sacrifices to give my children opportunities I didn’t have. If I didn’t come home they would be taken care of and that was worth it. It never occurred to me that I was also creating a sense of responsibility and duty in my young children. They were watching me and learning a message I had never intended. I was teaching my son that our family was the backbone of America that we had to be tougher and more dedicated than others. By serving we were somehow superior.
When I joined the objection was my gender. Females weren’t meant to fight wars. But despite the objections having done my service I was given a great amount of respect. This reinforced my unintended lessons of life to my children. How could a young man come into his own and gain respect from a military heavy family? By serving for so many years in my son’s impressionable youth, I had created a situation where he felt he had to join to be considered a man. Military service became his right of passage.
For me military service was a way to rebel against an abusive father, to better understand the two men I adored most in my childhood, and access to an education I would never get without it that would enable my children to have a better quality of life than I had.
When I think about how hard serving in the Army had been to me it is overwhelming. The physical abuse my body took, the mental pressure, and the emotional and psychological trauma. I never wanted that for my sons and the thought of them enduring even a tenth of what I endured brings tears to my eyes.
Don’t misunderstand I am so proud of my son. Despite myself I must admit I have great respect for his decision. But I fear and I grieve because I know the child I loved is going to be forever changed by this life altering decision. It’s one thing to have your baby leave the nest, but it is a completely other thing to know they are on a path that will take them through the boils of hell. A path that they may not return from.
One percent of Americans serve in the Military. Often generation after generation of families serve. I wonder how other veterans cope with watching their children following in their footsteps, because I must admit I’m having difficulty with it.