A Mother’s Memories of her Son’s Boot Camp Graduation

Some years ago, I took an emeritus class at U.C. Irvine in Travel Writing. There I learned that a travel essay needs to be more than a travelogue.  In order to interest a reader, travel writing should also have attitude. The writer’s voice is essential as it is through their eyes we view the adventure. I thought my blog readers might enjoy seeing some of the essays I wrote for that class.  This one, A Mother’s Memories of her Son’s Boot Camp Graduation, shows that not all travel articles have to take you to foreign places. Though written in 2002, I think it is still relevant for its glimpse of our military and the young men who join.

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Fall of 2002.  The crowd is building.  We have come from Texas, North Dakota, Oregon, Idaho, Missouri, Wyoming and even California — in fact, every state west of the Mississippi.  A thin man in cowboy boots stands near me, his brown and callused hand resting on his wife’s waist.  She is short and round, her tight jeans pulled in with a silver studded belt. Between them is a stroller with a sleeping toddler and two, stair-stepped, sunburned boys.   A large Hispanic family, what must be cousins, aunts, parents and siblings, cluster together speaking Spanish.  A young girl, her hair in tight corn-rows, sports a t-shirt with a big red heart and the words, “I love my Marine.

What am I doing here?  A Californian, born and breed, surrounded by the cream of the American Heartland.  A liberal democrat standing shoulder to shoulder with a man wearing a National Rifle Association cap.  A second-generation college graduate thrust among families who, I imagine, think of the military as the road to a better life. Yet there is a common thread that ties us all together.  We are waiting with anticipation for the first glimpse of the sons, brothers, and boyfriends we haven’t seen in thirteen weeks.  It is Family Day at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

I love my country for its beauty and its freedoms, but I also carry a vivid memory of the reprimand I got in my first year of teaching for wearing a black arm band to commemorate the fallen on both sides of the Viet Nam conflict. I am aware of a cold hard lump waiting to explode in the center of my chest — an uncomfortable lump of fear and disapproval that contrasts with a sense of eager anticipation to see my son and what he has become.

The amplified voice of a drill sergeant pulls the crowd into a patio ringed by Spanish arches.  He spews information and instructions about the day and involves some brave mothers in a contest to see who can best replicate the Marine Corps rallying cry. A variety of “Ooh-Rahs,” some high pitched, some low, at least one faltering, echo around the patio. Finally, it is time. “Be sure to get behind the sign with the correct platoon number of your loved one,” he warns.

Four deep, we jostle for a good picture taking spot. The platoons arrive, their red and gold flags waving in the sea blown breeze.  My daughter nudges me and whispers, “There he is. I recognize his elbows.”  This is helpful as they all look alike to me, each one slim and fit in olive drab t-shirt and running shorts.  Only complexion and height offer any clue. They dare not smile or shift their eyes to left or right; the DIs are watching and notice everything.

The young man we search for is a squad leader and thus in the front row. For just a moment, pride smothers the cold lump that clogs my throat. Slowly the recruits begin to move, jogging in place near the sign with their platoon number, while cameras click frantically. Then there is a loud “Ooh-Rah!” and they are off for a swift four-mile circuit of the base.

Following instructions from the amplified voice, we surge toward the theater where we are told the motivational run will end.  A holiday atmosphere is being pushed. There is a purveyor of soft drinks, water and candy. A tall Marine in a DI hat (the one that looks like what Smokey the Bear wears) leads Molly, an English bulldog dressed in a camouflage vest, around on her leash. Small children are allowed to pat her head. Some of us wander over to inspect the seven-foot high, wooden spirit displays standing on the theater steps.  There is one for each platoon — all painted with more enthusiasm than artistic talent. I plant my feet behind the barricade and hold the space near the correct number chalked on the pavement.

The sweating recruits return and a tall, white-haired commanding officer delivers a welcoming speech.  He is lean and fit enough to have run with this new class who are about to graduate from basic training. San Diego adds six-hundred young men almost every week all year round to the ranks of the United States Marines. The Parris Island Marine Depot in South Carolina trains both women and men and weekly graduates a similar number.

Later during the Emblem Ceremony, I feel the cold grenade in my chest stirring again.  It feels as if someone has pulled the pin.  The recruits march onto the Parade Ground in precise formation.  Hundreds of them stand in perfectly straight rows, dressed in pressed khaki and olive drab, their close-cropped heads topped with the small boat shaped hat called a barracks cover. In the aftermath of September 11, now almost a year past, each recruit is entitled to wear the red and yellow ribbon on his breast signifying active service in time of war. All lined up and pinned in red and yellow, not one of them is old enough to remember Viet Nam, or any other war. I fear that to these young men, war is a chapter in a history book. Or a computer game.

Drill sergeants, assisted by squad leaders, move down the straight rows and present each young man with the black metal Eagle, Globe and Anchor pin that propels him to the official rank of Marine.  Each new Marine proudly fastens the emblem to his own hat and returns to his place at attention.  When it is over, we pour out of the bleachers to hug our sons who stand stiff and proud, but finally smiling.  The very air vibrates with military zeal and patriotism and I allow my sense of impending danger to sink beneath the waves of pride.

There will be exactly six and a half hours of base liberty for the Marines.  It is the first real free time they have had since boot camp began three long months before.  Our son leads us around the public areas of the base  and explains that the barracks and training fields are off limits.  We pass groups of new recruits still in their early weeks of training. Our son points out that their pant legs hang loose over their boots.  It seems the blousing of camouflage pants into combat boots is a privilege that must be earned. Our son wants to talk of home and hear news of his friends. We want to ask about what he has experienced but we don’t know the right questions to get more than one-word answers.

In the end, we sit at a green plastic table in a patio surrounded by the PX and fast food stands. A Hallmark store  does a rousing business selling everything from mugs to stuffed animals, t-shirts to duffle bags, all advertising the Marine Corps.  When we order soft ice-cream cones, I smile to hear my handsome, uniformed son call the lady who takes the money “Ma’am.”

Too soon the time is over.  As good-byes begin in the orange glow of the setting California sun, I look around. The smooth faces of the new Marines show the confidence and assurance that marks them as men. There are no boys here, though their average age is only nineteen.  But the question lingers in the air — where will they be in six months?

This photo was taken of my son in Iraq, about a year after graduation.

Author’s note:  Within six months of his graduation, my son was in Afghanistan as part of a six-man reconnaissance team.  After 3 deployments and 8 years in the USMC, he returned to civilian life, attended university, graduated at the top of his computer engineering class, and  settled in the Pacific Northwest. We count ourselves very lucky.


4 responses to “A Mother’s Memories of her Son’s Boot Camp Graduation”

  1. Donna Becker

    Katie, Thank you for sharing this. Your descriptions of the people and your son and the Marine Graduation that day, make me feel like I am there, too. Your son has done so well and had some amazing experiences. You must be so proud of him. He has certainly done well.

    Donna Becker

  2. What a wonderfully written story! All true if course! I love reading your stories because I can use your descriptions to put me wherever you take me! Thanks

    1. Katie Slattery

      Thanks. Your comment means a lot. Stories can help us escape the restricted environment we find ourselves in these days. Stay well!!

  3. Donna Feeney

    Very well done (as usual). I could feel your discomfort at Camp Pendleton as well as your pride in Ethan.

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