Yesterday, Sunday that is, was a momentous day for the Smith clan and me. My son, Brendan, graduated from high school. This is, of course, a big day in any family, yet the day held special savor for me. You see, for a long time I was afraid I would never see this day at all.
My son was, to put it mildly, a rather difficult teenager. He combined a headstrong nature with questionable judgment in a way which often led to maddening results. We quarreled often. On many occasions, he required the sort of forgiveness only a father is capable of mustering.
The day he told me he was joining the army I was, to say the least, skeptical. This was a kid who had trouble finding enough initiative to make his own bed, and now he was proposing to subject himself to the rigors of boot camp. Yeah, right. I kept my mouth shut and just assumed this was a phase he was going through.
I was very, very, wrong.
He really did it. He signed up for the Army’s “split option” program and went through boot camp in the Summer of 2004, between his Junior and Senior years. I was thrilled. I thought if anybody could instill in him the discipline he so sorely lacked, it would be a big, nasty drill sergeant.
I was partly right. He did come back a different person. A little more poised, a little more disciplined, but only a little. Some seeds had been planted down in Fort Jackson, but they would need time to grow. But I noticed how he spoke fondly of the Army, even of boot camp. I remember him once showing his uniform to one of his friends. For some reason, he put on the beret. I will never forget how for just a moment he suddenly stood up straighter, and there was a light in his eyes that I had never seen there before. Then he took of the beret and he was once again my goofball teenage son. But for just a second, it was as though that beret had transformed him. Clearly, in the Army he had finally found something to take seriously, to take pride in.
When he dropped out of high school I was furious. I told him, what kind of a dumb-ass quits school in the second semester of his senior year? His company commander was none too pleased, either. Under ordinary circumstances he could have been discharged, but two things saved him: his company commander liked him, and by now we were entrenched in the quagmire known as Iraq.
From March of 2006 until March of 2007, my son saw things no teenager, no human, should ever have to witness. He once found the severed head of the company translator, an Iraqi who had chosen to throw his lot in with the Americans, nailed to a fence post as a warning to others who might have been thinking the same thing. He saw Iraqi children thrown in front of trucks by insurgents, and once had to wash a truck that had been splattered with a child’s entrails when the bomb in the child’s backpack was detonated. He saw a man riddled with bullets until his body looked like Swiss cheese. The “gunman” was only six years old.
I’m glad I did not know exactly what was going on over there. He always kept his calls home short and very general, and I bless him for that. I was worried sick about him as it was. Had I known exactly what he was going through I might never have slept at all. I now smile at the over protective parents who have a fit because their child was an hour past their curfew. They have no idea what real anxiety is.
But in spite of it all he came back, in one piece, and reasonably well adjusted considering all he had gone through. He enjoyed talking about his experiences overseas in general, but steadfastly refused to talk about the actual combat, a trait I have noticed in other combat veterans I have known.
And there were noticeable changes. In some ways, he was still the same cheerful kid with the puckish sense of humor I had always known, but there was something different. He had become more thoughtful, more introspective, while at the same time far more aware of the world around him. To my astonishment, when I was going through my divorce it was Brendan who often had insightful things to say on the nature of that relationship and its subsequent breakdown, and he simply would not have been capable of that even two years ago. One day, as we were talking, I suddenly realized that I was talking to another man.
One of the first things he did upon his return was enroll in night school, thereby completing the requirements for his diploma. And yesterday, January 13th, he was, at the ripe old age of twenty one, the oldest of about twenty kids who had realized that going through life without a high school diploma wasn’t such a hot idea after all. I take my hat off to each and very one of those kids.
It was a fairly brief commencement, but just before the principal called his name, he paused and said that he wanted to say a word or two about Brendan. From where I was sitting, I could seem Brendan cringe as the principal told the audience how Brendan had spent a year in Iraq, and had come home to complete his education, but I think he was pleased as well. When he handed him his diploma, no yelled louder than I did.
Later that day, we celebrated in a way that has become a tradition with us: we smoked a cigar together. I told him straight out that I sometimes had wondered if I would ever see this day, but that it was worth waiting for. He overcame many obstacles, many self-created, to achieve what he did. He has evolved from a typical dumb ass teenager into a thoughtful, intelligent young man
I am proud to be his father, and yesterday I told him so.