Terms of Enlistment, 2011

By Celia Hayes

A while ago, I wrote an essay, speculating on one of the very few rites of adult passage in American society. So many of the previous rites of passage have shifted position so radically as to render them useless. First Communion, Confirmation, Bar/Bat Mitzvah  . . .  marking one as an adult as far as religious belief goes? That happens too early in ones' teens to be useful. Marriage and setting up a household? Twenties or thirties, even later: too late. Only successfully completing military basic training seems to serve as that hard, bright, shining line between a kid of eighteen and an adult. Basic military training has all the elements of the classical tribal adulthood ritual: isolation from family among your age-cohort, the imparting of the special knowledge, the experience of a mental and physical challenge – and at the end of it, there you are: accepted into the tribe as an adult.

The military is an all-volunteer one now. The draft is four decades gone, and the standards for entry in a time of economic hardship are rather high. There's no more of a juvenile offender being given a choice of incarceration or the recruiter's office. Those who enlist today have many reasons for being there, though. Not interested in college, or a career involving serving fast food; a taste for adventure and to see something more that just the home town. Some – especially from military families – want to serve in the highest tradition, and others just want to learn a useful trade and rack up enough experience at it. And some, like our neighbor Michael, just wants to get away. He wants also to be a help to his widowed mother (and three younger sibs) and be a grown-up  . . .  and the military is the fastest way that he can see to get there.

My daughter – who is a friend to his mother, and something of a big sister to Michael – has been helping him walk through the steps to get started. The week after his high school graduation, we both went with him to the Air Force recruiter – just to ensure that Michael would get off on the right foot, and to let the recruiter know that Michael had knowledgeable friends looking out for his interests: I retired after twenty years in the Air Force, and my daughter did two hitches in the Marines – probably another reason why Michael looks to her as a big sister. Michael is Hispanic; he has been raised on both sides of the border, but is inarticulate in English, and I think somewhat embarrassed about that. He is bright, ambitious and did well in school, though. My daughter coached him through the practice exams – and he scored high enough to qualify for about any job he wants, and there is an opening for. This week, he passed the physical, and formally swore in. Of course, he still has to wait for a date to report in for basic training, which may happen around Christmas time. But when it does – we'll be there for his graduation parade. I know the best place to stand and get a picture, at the Friday Lackland graduation parades.

From the grass in front of the bleachers, just to the right of the reviewing stand: trust me. 

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