We See Our Son….Finally!
After thirteen long weeks, seventeen letters home, and 90+ letters out to California, we finally saw our son last Thursday.
We flew to San Diego on Wednesday, and sat on the starboard side of the plane so we could see the adjacent MCRD San Diego as we landed. Good thing I wore a seatbelt; otherwise I would have flown out of my seat as the rappelling tower (pictured) came into view. Then a squad of recruits ran along the fenceline. Maybe Sean was there! (He told us later that he thinks he saw our plane land.) We drove by the base, hoping to get a look at where he lived all summer. Unfortunately, they squirrel away the recruits far behind the perimeter fence.
Bruce found us a nice hotel not far from the base. We relaxed for the afternoon, enjoying the cackling seagulls, then headed into Old Town for the Wednesday night Marine Parent Meet and Greet. The aromas of griddled tortillas, sautéing onions, and roasting meat wafted down the street. We met a few other parents, none from Sean’s platoon. But we did meet and briefly chat with his Senior Drill Instructor, SSgt Nguyen.
We got an early start the next morning to allow enough time for long lines at the gate (due to a 100% car-and-ID check). With around 10 Marines checking incoming vehicles, though, everything proceeded smoothly.
After breakfast, we headed out to the Parade Deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of him practicing for graduation. As expected, all six platoons marched in time to music coming over the loudspeakers. The Parade Deck is strictly off-limits to non-Marines, so we watched from the sidelines. While we identified his platoon, his specific whereabouts remained a mystery. He was 50 yards away, and they all have the same uniform, bearing, and haircut. He told us later that he saw us and had to look down to maintain his composure.
After the posting of the colors, Starbucks beckoned. The vendors in the PX courtyard sold us several souvenir items, including two challenge coins.
My sister and her family arrived in time for the Drill Instructors Briefing, which gave us a small taste (very small) of his summer. A tough bunch, those DIs. After the briefing, the enormous horde of parents and family members headed to the roadside for the first-sighting event, the Moto Run. At 10:30 am on Family Day, the company lines up in formation on the road, with nearby signs designating where each platoon will stand. (The length of the formation is easily over 100 yards, so it would be easy to stand in the wrong place otherwise.) When they lined up, everyone in my family saw him but me, and then, off they went. They ran by on the other side of the street, but I still couldn’t see him. It wasn’t until they returned and stopped, 15 minutes later, that I finally picked him out.
Poor guy….the pace was significantly faster than he was expecting, probably due to the day’s special guest, THE (there’s only one) Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. We actually worried a bit about Sean, with all his puffing and blowing. After a left-face into the sun, he couldn’t move to wipe away the sweat, and it streamed into his sun-stressed eyes. Fortunately, by the time they ran off, he had gotten his wind back.
One by one, the DI released each platoon of family members to the bleachers (again helpfully marked with platoon numbers) to await the Liberty Formation. We bought some water and snacks and sat down to wait. The bright California sun heated up the asphalt, and the flags snapped in a welcome breeze. Others in the crowd complained of the heat (only 72 degrees that day); those from Texas just laughed. As we waited, we heard other recruit platoons sounding off in the background. The crowd shouted at a few souls unwise enough to walk across the Parade Deck.
The MCRD Marine Band marched in around noon and played some tunes to warm up the crowd. We saw the platoons lining up on the far end of the field. Soon enough, the band struck up a march, and in they came.
Sean was easier to find this time, since he was in the same place as the morning run. After a 15-minute ceremony, the DIs shouted, “Dismissed!” and the bleachers emptied.
Monster hugs (and some tears) on both ends. While the summer moved by faster than I feared it would, thirteen weeks is still a long time. He also got a huge bear hug from his dad and from his aunt, uncle and cousin. After a few pictures and status updates (“Were you OK this morning?? You looked like you were about to pass out”), we left for lunch.
(You probably noticed that Sean already wore his Marine uniform, the day before graduation. They officially became Marines on the closing day of The Crucible.)
During the meal, we got more details about his platoon, his activities during the summer (especially The Crucible), and what’s next (an abbreviated infantry school, after ten days leave). He called his grandparents and my other sister. We then spent a few hours with him on-base.
We visited a display of the various weeks of recruit training. (Much to my disappointment, we couldn’t visit his off-limits squad bay, his home for the past thirteen weeks.) While the display didn’t give us a complete picture, it did help fill in some gaps, along with his descriptions.
A visit to the PX (on this day and Graduation Day only, you don’t need a military ID to shop there) yielded some Marine parent shirts, sundries, and a bite to eat later in the afternoon. He took us as far into the recruit training area as permitted. (At any given time, around ten other companies progress through various stages of training.) But mostly, we just sat and chatted and enjoyed each other’s company. We met a few of his platoon-mates, some of whom he had written us about.
I had expected him to bulk up during his time there, but he looked pretty much the same (other than the haircut of course). We found out the next day, though, that he lost about an inch around his waist, which was pretty skinny to begin with. He will need new jeans soon.
We returned him to the squad bay by 5:45 and headed off-base to have dinner with my sister and her family.
After the next day’s breakfast, we headed to the base headquarters for the morning colors ceremony, which mostly consisted of a speech from the commanding general. The chilly morning (especially after the previous day’s “heat”) caught many unprepared and shivering. The Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps impressed many (including me) by working the crowd, meeting parents, and congratulating them. After that, we moved to the bleachers to await the graduation formation.
My outfit for the day included a large yellow sunhat so Sean could pick us out from the thousand others in the stands. He said to himself (he told us later) as they marched up, “Yup! There’s Mom!” Mission accomplished.
The graduation included a parade and several speeches (which no one could hear due to sound problems and the roar of departing jets from the airport just over the fence). After turning over the platoon guidons, the DIs dismissed the ranks, and he was officially DONE.
We immediately drove to the airport. As we stepped off the rental car bus, a gentleman approached Sean and thanked him for his service. Sean responded graciously (we had told him this was likely), but afterwards, he told me, “But I haven’t DONE anything yet!!” A young boy, upon seeing Sean in the concourse, said, “Cool!!!”
Next we headed for the USO. I had forgotten what a Godsend the USO is to travelling military. He was able to change out of his uniform, relax for a bit, and get a snack before we checked in. Several other recruits….oops, sorry, Marines…were also on our flight, and the Southwest flight attendant noticed and made an announcement, generating a round of applause. After an uneventful flight home, he nearly passed out (again) when he walked into the Texas heat. Welcome home, sweetie.
We enjoyed our five days with him (I mended a uniform or two) and dropped him off at the airport to spend the rest of his leave in north Texas with family and friends. He leaves for infantry school (back at Camp Pendleton in California) on Tuesday. Around September 20, he moves to his tech school; we don’t yet know where or how long.
Has he changed? In appearance, not much. But he carries himself straighter, with more pride and confidence than when he left. After struggling for three years to figure out what to do after college graduation, he feels he has finally found his path, and he is extremely excited. He cannot wait to get started, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
Where he goes next and what he does is now completely up to the US Marine Corps, although he’ll have a bit of say in choosing his first assignment. We cannot wait to see what the future brings for our son, PFC Sean!