It’s early on a quiet Sunday morning, and the sky is starting to lighten with the dawn. A cup of coffee by my side, I’m reflecting on the long conversations only hours ago. Last night DangerBoy called from a hotel room during his 36 hour pass from Basic Training, the first taste of freedom he’s had in nine weeks. We sat for hours around the dining room table, talking, laughing, and listening as everyone caught up, crowded around a computer screen on Skype — otherwise known as the new family gathering place.
I marvel at how nine weeks has changed him. When he left, DangerBoy was an 18 year old with a boyish face, a quick smile, and a lean build. There was nothing boyish about the young man talking to us now. So much of his physical build had changed. Gone was the boyish face. Now there was bulk in the form of hard muscle, the result of dropping and giving what must easily be thousands of pushups by now; strong, broad shoulders from carrying rucksacks on marches and training runs; a washboard stomach from hours of sit ups and “getting smoked” — a platoon’s discipline for infractions. Though his hair had always been short for the last several years, now it was buzzed and I could see the scar in his hairline, a remnant of eleven staples in a more youthful time. A time which feels to me like a lifetime ago.
There was a quiet confidence that hung from him as he spoke. This was new. While things had always come easily to DangerBoy, this was confidence borne of experience. His mannerisms were of one who was relaxed, but only a half beat away from being at full attention. The military jargon easily spilled from his lips, having started the conversion to the vernacular as soon as he’d signed the enlistment papers, but now there was no hesitation, no stumbling over unfamiliar acronyms. This was his language now. It was as second nature as the military time he used, which became amusing when he tried to convert back to civilian time.
The Army had done an admirable job of fast tracking the maturation this young man. While I’m sure he missed us, his world now revolved around his duty to the US Army and his fellow soldiers, not around his family. That is part of the art of military training, as is weaning the family from constant contact with their soldier. He now slept, ate, and lived his training as if his life depended on it — which it, in fact, does. I found myself watching his face as he talked about some of the more somber components of combat training, of resolving the cognitive dissonance of the mindset that combat requires. Every so often there was the barest glimpse of vulnerability, easy to miss if you weren’t looking. Soon, even that glimpse would be gone.
He talks about the Ranger contract he’s earned. Some soldiers who came into Basic with Ranger contracts have lost them, either through injury or lack of focus. I know he is full of pride at garnering one of the few available contracts; the only one in his platoon, in fact. I love that he has found his niche, that he is beginning to accept his leadership capabilities and that his discipline and focus have made this possible. I regret I didn’t recognize this sooner. But I know too well the reality of this badge of honor. Rangers are an elite combat unit, and they don’t say “Rangers lead the way” for nothing. These are direct action raid forces, always combat ready, mentally and physically tough. These are the teams that go into the bad stuff first. I think of Afghanistan. I think of North Korea. I think of this young man facing us, already well trained to be prepared for situations I don’t want to think about. Trained to handle them so I don’t have to think about them, so that I can sleep well. I think about my years in the Middle East, living in an environment that sometimes turned hostile to American expatriates, and how the instability was a way of life. How we personally sidestepped tragedy by a week (my own story could have been very, very different than what it is today). How grateful I was to eventually leave the region and get back on American soil. How grateful I was to be American with rights, freedoms, and all that goes with that double-edged sword. And part of what goes with it is the reality of this boy in front of me, believing in our freedom so completely that he is willing to risk his life to protect us and keep us safe.
I back away from this line of thought. This was neither the time nor the place. This was the time to focus on the smiles, the sibling banter, and the excitement of being able to talk with each other around a table, pretending we were together once again. Before he hangs up, he has a message for me: he wants me to know it’s good I’m going to Google I/O. There will be other graduations I can make. Graduations from more difficult, more mentally challenging, physically grueling training. My throat catches, and I nod. I nod at the young man who has always been older than his years, and I try to memorize his new face and mannerisms. Finally, with regret heavy in the air, we agree it’s late and we should hang up and let people get to sleep. We send our love back and forth, and the screen goes blank as the Skype call is disconnected. Silence hangs heavy in the air. It was almost like leaving him all over again.
My thoughts return to the present, and I look around the vacant dining room once again, noticing the little things. The sun climbing higher in the sky. My cup of coffee, now cold. The laptop, closed. I think of the young man who now wears a uniform like a badge of honor, determined to honor his mother, his father, and his country. My pride, my fear, my hopes, my love for him all fight to be heard above the cacophony of my brain and my heart.
I blink back tears and realize, to my surprise, this is what freedom tastes like.