By: Anne Marie | November 28, 2023
On a summer day many years ago, our family arrived at the United States Coast Guard Academy to leave our only child to begin his summer of training. More than any other time in life, our emotions ran the full range of extremes. After all, this was college, and so, so very much more.
Acceptance at a service academy doesn’t come easily, and typically, those who get in have been preparing for a very long time. All this preparation somehow still falls short when the day finally comes, at least for the parent who stays behind.
These future military officers have earned the grades, excelled in sports, volunteered in their communities, demonstrated leadership and fostered their talents in a whole variety of pursuits. They’re golden—the top of their high school class. This first summer of training will break down all of that and bring them to one common place, and they’ll emerge the closest of brothers and sisters with friendships that last a lifetime. But first—they must make it through the first day, the summer. It won’t be easy. They may ask themselves if they’ve made the right choice. Will they meld into this new environment, with these new people and new purpose?
Summer training is demanding. Some say it's like boot camp; others say it's even harder. Its challenging physically, mentally and emotionally. This training, in this place, in this time will be the sole focus. There will be no beach parties, no mixers on campus. No, not for them—they’ll collapse into bed, sleep fast each night and rise before anyone should really have to and do it all again. They tell us we have left them a boy who will quickly become a man—a girl who will soon be a woman.
A few weeks later, and we’re invited to town for a few hours to spend with them. As the buses with the cadets approach, we can hear the chants of our son's Golf Company drowning out any other sound in the world. They march off that bus in perfect precision, trim, impeccable in their uniforms, heads up, shoulders strong, a family—healthy, strong, beautiful and full of energy. They’re the men and women we knew they’d be, only better. If we’re lucky, we get a moment of hugs. “Mom, not too much PDA," they say.
And at this moment, they run off full of glee, back to the regiment fold of their new family, thrilled to see us, thrilled to just have a few moments of "Liberty" but equally thrilled to be sharing these moments together. These young men and women who were strangers until a few weeks ago.
Imagine the feelings in that car that day as we parents pass our children into the capable hands of this institution whom we must trust somehow with our whole world. The intensity of that pride and joy, with an undercurrent of fear of the unknown. Are they ready? They showed up here with a backpack, some 6 pairs of underwear and 6 socks—nothing more.
You watched your friends rent U-Hauls to bring their kids to college with microwaves, blankets and all the comforts of life. This isn’t comfortable—they’ll march and march and march some more, all while their cadre remind them of their lowly status. All while being constantly yelled at with directions. Faster. Slower. Head down. Eyes in the boat!
We've monitored their every movement during those high school years. If we were worried, we sent a text. If we wanted them home for dinner, we sent a text. There were lots of texts. Guess what? There will be no texts, no phone, a complete and total disconnect like you’ve never known before. There will be no contact with them except for handwritten letters, and we’ve already been warned to not count on many of those.
We quickly learn we can count on the other parents for ideas, information, support and occasionally a shoulder to cry on. We count on each other for clever ideas like packing pre-addressed, pre-stamped postcards into that meager backpack. Some of those postcards have choices—rate your overall experience from 1-4. Rate this decision to attend this school 1-4. Rate how you're feeling 1-4. We run down to the mailbox each day praying for something, anything. And, when the day comes with the check marks, it’s 4s across the board! I can only describe it akin to the day they were born, after all the difficulty of labor, the most wonderfully satisfying wash of relief. They're okay!
Pride and Joy
And now, I’m the luckiest person ever. I feel so honored with how that experience has shaped where I am today. I’m now on a new side of that experience as Navy Federal’s Member Outreach and Engagement Manager for all of New England. Each year, I get to share the briefest of moments with the new families at service academies around the nation. I’m glad to be able to offer words of encouragement and comfort when needed as someone who knows, who has walked in their shoes. We often share endless hugs and laughs, tears and smiles. I proudly wear my son’s class ring on a leather cord around my neck to feel that connection and belonging as I serve these family members.
I remember one mom who was so worried on that first day, the hardest of all days, when they take your child away and ready them for what's ahead. It all begins at the barber shop. And I’ll never forget her loving son, so strong, so confident, but also so aware of his mother's worry. He told the amazing barber a little about that and after expertly shaving his head, she took a great photo of his new look and sent it in a text to his mom. Not exactly standard practice, but the sweetest little breaking of the rules ever. I can still feel the intensity of that mother's hugs, the warmth of her tears on my shoulder. The pure joy of a mother’s love awash in the understanding that her boy would be okay—that he was thinking of her and wanted her to be okay, too.
I remember all the families who bring me a little treat or a breakfast on the second day because we just connected on that first day. Big hugs to all the dads and moms who bring the other family members over to meet me, just because we met, chatted and enjoyed each other's company and swapped stories. That connection—being part of that, sharing that day—is hard to explain because it’s very unique to service academy family.
I love the fun families who take photos with me, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, uncles and aunts, all here together celebrating. So devoted to this son, daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew. An overflow of joy and very willing to share with me. If you're reading this, you know who you are. You all touch my life each year, and I’m grateful for that time with you. I love to see the same family year after year as we get closer to that day. That day when the caps will be flung into the air prior to embarking on the next steps in their journey. The years that they’ll serve as Military Officers and continue to learn, to grow, to achieve.
Author Bio: Anne Marie is a proud mom to her son and daughter-in-law, both graduates of the United States Coast Guard Academy and Coast Guard Veterans. She also serves as Navy Federal’s Member Outreach and Engagement Manager for New England. Each year, she leads a team offering Navy Federal support for our Cadets, Midshipmen and their families at the Indoctrination Days and Parents Weekends at our Service Academies.
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