But I'd be remiss not to talk about my recent little trip to middle-of-nowhere-Southern Missouri....Ft. Leonard Wood, to be precise, for my brother's graduation from Basic Training.
I wrote a while back about my younger brother and his decision to ditch the easy life and join the Army. In late June, he shipped off to Ft. Leonard Wood to start 10 weeks of Basic Training / boot camp. I can't say I had an idea of what he was in for, but based on what I've seen in movies, I knew it would be bad.
When we started getting letters from him, we realized it was really bad. As in, in my view, sort of like prison. They had absolutely no freedom whatsoever. Their cell phones were confiscated and they were allowed one phone call a week (my parents reported that every week, my brother sounded a little more and more broken). A little letter writing (on paper!) was the extent of their recreation. The Olympics came and went, and all they knew was what they were told in letters coming from home. They had to sleep completely under the covers during one of the hottest summers on record, and would be woken up in the middle of the night if they failed to comply. Days were filled with....I don't know exactly, but I gather lots of physical training, shooting of guns, and being yelled at. Apparently not a lot of eating, based on the fact that my brother lost something like 40 pounds, at least, in ten weeks.
On Wednesday evening, we drove to the military base to pick up my brother, who was allowed 4 hours to hang with his family, so long as he stayed on the base. This puzzled me a bit. I don't have a great working knowledge of things military, so I sort of pictured a military base as a few dorm-like barracks, a few office buildings, and not much else. I envisioned dinner in the mess hall, which was somewhat less than enticing.
Not so. This military base was like a full city. One of the first things we saw when we got there was a go-kart track and water park. And a mall. I started in on my smart-ass comments about how Basic Training can't be that bad if they have go-karting and shopping. Turns out the first time my brother saw that pool was that very day, when we were visiting. "We'd heard it existed," he said. I guess that's good....at least they didn't make them run laps around the pool, in 100+ degree temperatures, just as a tease. Anyway, big base equals dining options, and we found a fun bar and grill that had ample sized burgers and karaoke. Winning.
|This Isn't So Bad|
And that's exactly what he'd become. My brother won the Commanding General's Award for leadership. We heard he'd won a few day before graduation, but didn't know what it meant. I remembered those days of summer swim team, when there was the "Coach's Award" given to the kid who wasn't necessarily the fastest, but worked really hard and had a good attitude. It wouldn't have surprised me if this Commanding General's Award was along the same lines....after all, my brother did ALWAYS win the Coach's Award growing up. (**cough, brown noser, cough**)
But this time, the award was much, much bigger. After being nominated by his drill sergeants, my brother had to go through an interview process with all the commanding officers. He was then selected as the very top soldier of his entire company of about 150 soldiers. It was, in short, a very big deal.
So the actual graduation ceremony on Thursday was his big moment. He wore a very handsome dress uniform. He led the whole company in. He stood alone on the stage, in front of a massive American flag, as he was introduced as the very top graduate....like the Valedictorian of his Basic Training company (but with no speech, which I think probably made him happy). Afterwards, he had to stick around and stand in a receiving line with the other special award winners to accept congratulations. We were so, so proud.
Major Award Winner
Afterwards, we got to take him off the base for the rest of the day. His first time back in the real world! First, we fed him. A lot. I've never seen someone so happy to drink a Pepsi. He got reacquainted with his cell phone, and later, his laptop. He updated his Facebook status (essential). We lounged in the hotel. His jokes came back. He started quoting movie lines to me (that's how we bond). We fed him some more. He told war stories of his ten weeks. He wouldn't say it, but he seemed almost a little sad that it was over.
Allowing himself half a smile. Since they're all graduated now.
Most of all, he just had this presence that was absolutely inspiring. You know sometimes when you're around someone, and it's just like they've found their place in the world? They seem at ease, comfortable, self-assured? That was him. He'd just been through hell, but came out the other end far stronger. And he's good at this military stuff....his award proved that.
Of course, hell's not necessarily over...he's heading to San Antonio for another six months of training. He is pretty confident that while there will still be a lot of restrictions, he's going to be able to live a bit more like a normal person now. His life won't be normal, per se, but closer. Which makes me happy. And then, after six months, he'll go somewhere else for even more training. Hawaii's been thrown out there. And if that happens, and he's allowed visitors....well, then I'll be really happy.