Readers Feel a Father's Anxiety Over Son's Interest in Military

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In response to a recent column about whether my youngest son should stay in college or join the military, I received quite a bit of feedback--including from the kid himself. "Why'd you put my business in the streets like that?" he asked.

Because it might help keep his blood off the battlefield, that's why.

Hopes for further discussions might have been dashed were it not for readers who weighed in with insights that compelled us to keep talking.

"Let me acknowledge that our younger son was killed in action in Afghanistan last year, so I am not unmindful of parental anxiety and grief," wrote Donald C. Walton Jr., a doctor from Rockville. "Cutting the umbilical cord is the hardest thing a parent does. Some never do, and that's a shame for both parent and child. While one can (and should) abhor war, one must realize that 'Freedom is not free.' The best of us realize this, as they always have. If your son wishes to join them, let him do so with your love and blessing. Reserve your tears and prayers for times of solitude. God hears them; your son needn't."

This is not about putting somebody's business in the streets. This is about me asking for help -- and getting it. As the saying goes, "a problem shared is a problem halved," and let's face it, I've got a problem that needs slicing and dicing into digestible bits.

To recap my dilemma, ("A Worried Dad Ponders a Tempting Offer and the Ultimate Sacrifice," March 11): Do I urge my 19-year-old to stay in school, bored, and spend the last dime of my dwindling bank account on college tuition? Or do I encourage his curiosity about the armed forces, let Uncle Sam foot the education bill -- and possibly get him killed in the bargain?

"My youngest son, 19 years old in 2006, had the same inclination and was in the same situation as your son (attending college), and then made the decision to join the Army," wrote William W. Epley, a branch chief at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington. "What helped me come to grips with supporting my son's decision (besides the relief from paying for his college): In our democracy, who will fight and sacrifice is always a key question. We have a volunteer military today and if no one joined, we'd lack an important instrument to carry out the will of our people (as expressed in our elected leaders)."

And yet, there is something particularly disturbing about the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, there are a lot of things: the poor planning; the disgraceful treatment of the wounded once they return home; the stunning rise in domestic violence among veterans; and the rates of suicide and attempted suicide, self-injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, all of which have increased sharply, according to the Army, National Guard and Veterans Affairs Department.

"Please, please tell me you are not seriously considering your son's idea of joining the military for a chance to fight in these preposterous wars started by the cowboy from Texas and started under false pretenses," wrote Sonia Rothschild, who lives in the District. "I write as a 72-year-old mother, not from the anti-war generation -- my two older brothers fought in [World War II]. That was a war that unfortunately had to be fought. The war in Iraq is NOT right."

And then there's Afghanistan, "graveyard of empires," hotbed of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama is sending in an additional 17,000 troops. Meanwhile, the only thing his defense strategists can say for sure is to expect more deaths.

"I am also a worried dad," wrote retired Air Force Lt. Col. William H. Szych. "My son is to report to Afghanistan next month with the [Marine Corps], his first deployment. My message is this. Be neutral on your son's decision. It is totally his decision. If you go against it, he may resent you for the rest of his life. If you support it, you may resent it for the rest of your life if, God forbid, he dies on active duty or is grievously wounded, physically or emotionally."

Thanks to one and all for your wise and generous counsel.

By the way, I did leave a heads-up about the previous column on my son's voice mail. Now he tells me that "texting" is the way to communicate important stuff.

It may be his decision, which I hope to share with you, but I want to hear about it man to man.

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