A Parent's Guide To Surviving Boot Camp and Military Life
"Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your county." -- President John F. Kennedy
In my humble and personal opinion, serving our country is one of the most important, selfless, and honorable jobs/acts an American can pursue. With less than 1% of the US population having served, the ramifications of military service are ones that few will understand. Most civilians also have a hard time understanding the effects of military service on families. When our loved ones raise their right hands and swear their oath and loyalty to Uncle Sam, they are giving up some of their freedoms. For the most part, their lives and schedules no longer belong to them. They are, in essence, giving up their freedom to protect ours. We, as family members, often find ourselves sacrificing too.
"There are many things life doesn't prepare us for, and saying goodbye to our children is one of them." -- Amy Cotta
As parents, we have spent our lives loving, supporting, and watching over our children. We have done everything within our power to keep them safe from harm. We scare off the monsters under their beds. We wipe away their tears -- clean and bandage booboos. Then, just like that... our ability to protect them is gone with the stroke of an ink pen. Our baby's lives are no longer ours to protect. For better or worse, they are now the property of the United States Government.
As parents, we are innately protective. We want to be an ongoing part of our children's lives. Letting go and saying goodbye is never easy. Yet, as hard as it is, we know leaving the nest is a natural part of life. People often talk about the worry and separation anxiety that comes with sending your child off to college. As a mother of six and having lived through both, I can tell you they don't compare! I often explain it to civilian families like this; take college life's worry and separation anxiety, pour rocket fuel on it, light a match, and set it on fire. That's what it's like to send your child off to the military, especially during wartime. There are no words to express that level of anxiety of the unknown.
In 2011, I signed for my then seventeen-year-old son to join the Marine Corps. It was the proudest and hardest day of my life. As someone who isn't usually short on words, that experience left me speechless. As I sat there choking back tears, listening to the Staff Sergeant explain the events to come, my mind began to drift and wander. My son's young life flashed before my eyes playing out like a silent film on the big screen. That's when the questions started flooding my thoughts.
"What was I doing there?!"
"How did I ever let him talk me into this?!"
"What if he comes home and hates me for not talking him out of his decision?"
Then it hit me… "what if something happens to my son?" OMG..! His blood would be on my hands, "Would I be able to live with myself?" The answer was no!
As I sat there struggling to suppress my tears, my hand shaking, I signed over my only biological son to the Marines.
My son's life was no longer mine to protect. He was now the property of the United States Marine Corps. I had zero say or control. That's where my life began to unravel, and it's also where my new life took flight.
While my son Tyler was at boot camp, my once tough-as-nails exterior came crashing down. I was a sloppy mess! I was barely holding myself together. If anyone asked how he was doing, I would physically become unable to speak. I often found myself crying uncontrollably. I was in mourning. I wasn't mourning the loss of his life but mourning the loss of his childhood. I was mourning the life we once knew. He was no longer mine, and it hurt.
The Marine Corps and recruiters like to tell you that boot camp is "only" twelve weeks long. Um, no, it's thirteen weeks when you count the first-week in-processing. Thirteen weeks without my son. Zero contact other than a few letters. Letters that I couldn't wait to receive. Notes that I was worried to open, not knowing what they might contain. Was he OK? Was he regretting his decision?
About two weeks into his departure, my depression was getting the better of me. I finally broke down and told my husband that I needed help. I could no longer manage the depression and anxiety on my own. I had thought about seeking help and medication, but then I decided to take matters into my own hands and find my outlet. I took up walking, hiking, and running in Marine Corps combat boots, which led to me starting a national GoldStar nonprofit. Now, I know my exact journey isn't for everyone, but I learned a few things that I believe will help you along your journey. Below is how I survived; I hope they help you too.
SIX TIPS TO SURVIVING BOOT CAMP & MILITARY LIFE
BREATHE. This one simple act seems like a cliche, but it's true. Stop worrying (if only for a minute), take a breath, meditate, remember this feeling of helplessness, and "unknowing" will pass. Your loved one will be fine, and so will you.
WRITE NOTES, LETTERS, OR JOURNAL. Words have power, especially those written. Express yourself. Putting your thoughts and feelings on paper can be amazingly therapeutic. Writing takes your consuming thoughts and sets them free! While your loved one is away at boot camp, be cautious of what you write/send. With that said, try to keep your letter upbeat. Keep drama to yourself and try not to write anything that might make them even more homesick. I would send positive quotes and bible verses to my son, along with thoughts of how proud I am of him and how I know he's doing an amazing job. Always stay upbeat, even if, in reality, you're falling apart.
FIND FOCUS. TURN YOUR PAIN INTO PURPOSE. Pour your heart and soul into something that either fills your heart or distracts your mind. For me, it was donating my time to military nonprofits and causes, then eventually starting my own nonprofit.
FIND A PHYSICAL OUTLET. Exercise is by FAR the best therapy on the plant. Run if you can, walk if you must, or crawl if needed, but move! No matter the form or mode of movement, find some way to express yourself while casting away your stress.
FRIEND OTHER MILITARY FAMILIES. If you only take one thing away from this entire article, please let it be this... you are NOT alone. You have people who understand, seek us out! We all became family the moment our loved ones signed on the dotted line and slipped on our Nation's cloth. You have people who understand. There are many great groups on Facebook. All you have to do is search them out and join. Seek out Blue Star groups in your area and online.
EMBRACE THE SUCK. Our loved ones are conditioned to improvise, adapt, and overcome. And so must we. Don't let the things that you can't control, control you. Don't allow the anxiety and worry to overtake your life, embrace the suck and keep going -- keep working on the list.
Military life has taught our family many lessons over the years. My oldest daughter has experienced and endured nine months with a deployed husband, all while finishing college and raising three boys. Eleven years later, my son is still on active duty in the Marine Corps; his wife is also. And I have adjusted to going months and sometimes years without putting my arms around my son. It might not be the life we imagined, but it's the one we have. So, like our service member children, we too must adapt and overcome.
Today, your world might seem like it's off its axis. It is, but it will come back into alignment.
You might be feeling like you're not going to survive. You will.
You are likely feeling alone and isolated. You're not!
Yes, you will still miss seeing your son or daughter whenever you like, but it does get easier, I promise.
LIFE WILL GO ON - IT WILL GET EASIER (eventually)
You are going to get through this. Everything is going to be OK.
Yes, it will be different, but it will be OK. You're, "OMG" will someday become you're I'm "OK" -- that eventually becomes your "NORMAL."
This new life might not always be how you want it, but when anxiety or sadness creeps in -- go back to #1 and remember to breathe. I am just one of the millions of parents who survived before you, and many, many more will endure long after you. You will get through this. We will get through this together.
I would love to hear from you.
Please feel free to use the comments section below to share your own story and or survival tips. Semper Fi.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Amy Cotta. I am a mother of six and the mother of a United States Marine. In 2011, I took up running in USMC combat boots while my son was away at boot camp. My boots and that experience has changed my life forever. I'm the Founder of the national Gold Star nonprofit, Memories of Honor as well as Wearable Gratitude™. I'm on a mission to honor the sacrifices made by our US service members and their families.