Posted by: blogengeezer | July 11, 2008

My Heart On The Line

My Heart on the Line By Frank Schaeffer of The Washington Post 

Before my son became a Marine, I never thought much about who was defending me. Now when I read of the war on terrorism or the coming conflict in Iraq , it cuts to my heart. When I see a picture of a member of our military who has been killed, I read his or her name very carefully. Sometimes I cry. 

In 1999, when the barrel-chested Marine recruiter showed up in dress blues and bedazzled my son John, I did not stand in the way. John was headstrong, and he seemed to understand these stern, clean men with straight backs and flawless uniforms. I did not. I live in the Volvo-driving, higher education- worshiping North Shore of Boston . I write novels for a living. I have never served in the military. 

It had been hard enough sending my two older children off to Georgetown and New York University . John’s enlisting was unexpected, so deeply unsettling. I did not relish the prospect of answering the question, ‘So where is John going to college?’ from the parents who were itching to tell me all about how their son or daughter was going to Harvard. At the private high school John attended, no other students were going into the military. 

‘But aren’t the Marines terribly Southern?’ asked one perplexed mother while standing next to me at the brunch following graduation. ‘What a waste, he was such a good student,’ said another parent. One parent (a professor at a nearby and rather famous university) spoke up at a school meeting and suggested that the school should ‘carefully evaluate what went wrong.’ 

When John graduated from three months of boot camp on Parris Island , 3,000 parents and friends were on the parade deck stands. We parents and our Marines not only were of many races but also were representative of many economic classes. Many were poor. Some arrived crammed in the backs of pickups, others by bus. John told me that a lot of parents could not afford the trip. 

We in the audience were white and Native American. We were Hispanic, Arab and African American and Asian. We were former Marines wearing the scars of battle, or at least baseball caps emblazoned with battles’ names. We were Southern whites from Nashville and skinheads from New Jersey , black kids from Cleveland wearing ghetto rags and white ex-cons with ham-hock forearms defaced by jailhouse tattoos. We would not have been mistaken for the educated and well-heeled parents gathered on the lawns of John’s private school a half-year before. 

After graduation one new Marine told John, ‘Before I was a Marine, if I had ever seen you on my block I would’ve probably killed you just because you were standing there.’ This was a serious statement from one of John’s good friends, an African American ex-gang member from Detroit who, as John said, ‘would die for me now, just like I’d die for him.’ 

My son has connected me to my country in a way that I was too selfish and insular to experience before. I feel closer to the waitress at our local diner than to some of my oldest friends. She has two sons in the Corps. They are facing the same dangers as my boy. When the guy who fixes my car asks me how John is doing, I know he means it. His younger brother is in the Navy. 

Why were I and the other parents at my son’s private school so surprised by his choice? During World War II, the sons and daughters of the most powerful and educated families did their bit. If the idea of the immorality of the Vietnam War was the only reason those lucky enough to go to college dodged the draft, why did we not encourage our children to volunteer for military service once that war was done? 

Have we wealthy and educated Americans all become pacifists? Is the world a safe place? Or have we just gotten used to having somebody else defend us? What is the future of our democracy when the sons and daughters of the janitors at our elite universities are far more likely to be put in harm’s way than are any of the students whose dorms their parents clean? 

I feel shame because it took my son’s joining the Marine Corps to make me take notice of who is defending me. I feel hope because perhaps my son is part of a future ‘greatest generation.’ As the storm clouds of war gather, at least I know that I can look the men and women in uniform in the eye. My son is one of them. He is the best I have to offer. He is my heart.

Frank Schaeffer




  1. By Van Allen and Barbara I
    to Arlen and JoAnn re; email
    Thanks so much for your kind words! When we re-entered Army life in 1967, the military was considered scum of the earth. Naturally we had to be stationed at Presidio of California right in the den of all the hippies. We were jeered, spat at, ridiculed, anything nasty you can think of. We, the military men and families were locked in every weekend because the hippies would have their love-in’s (drug parties) and war protest on top of the mountain where we lived.

    We were not allowed to drive into San Francisco on weekends because they would recognize a military sticker or plate on the car and turn it over, whether men, wives or children were inside. Funny how friendly they could be if they didn’t know you had any military ties. Of course they were dirty and always begging for money on every business step. Sharp military soldiers stood out like sore thumbs among them.

    Our soldiers are well trained and took this kind of treatment in stride. They know they took an oath to serve and protect the citizens of the United States, honor the Constitution and the laws afforded every citizen speaking out against them. Fighting the military was considered freedom of speech and our military were willing to give their lives to protect that right.

    It is heart warming to see the vast changes now. We still have protesters and always will. But the majority of American’s go out of their way to treat the soldiers with respect and do everything they can to show them thanks. Most will tell you going thru an airport, people will not allow them to pay for their meals and thank them profusely for their service. It warms our hearts to witness that kindness today, considering the rough times the Viet-Nam guys and girls had. We couldn’t be more proud of them and the American people for changing attitudes.

    Some people think our soldiers are war mongers. They are trained to fight and protect, not go in and massacre people to take over their countries. And believe me, this country is capable of doing a lot more than people understand. We use our weapons and military for good purposes and history shows we have always returned countries back to their own people. We won WWII and could have taken possession of all of it. That is not the United States way, despite the protesters version of us being the aggressor.

    We have the most powerful military might in the world, our only fear is countries like Iran gaining nuclear weapons and using them against the entire world. That’s the danger that exists today, we are doing everything in our power to stop it from happening. The United States can’t keep taking all these tasks on for the rest of the world. It’s time other countries do their share helping!!! They are more at risk than we are, it’s in their back yard.

    Someone needs to volunteer to join us in this fight against terrorism. Our soldiers have had some help, but many countries sit back as usual and expect the good old U.S.A. to protect them without much commitment on their behalf. They can hate us if they choose, but they always scream for our help to save them. Shows how fickle they are.

    Van Allen was pleased you acknowledged his service years. The military life is not for sissys, but we enjoyed seeing parts of the world and doing things we never dreamed of. It was rough raising two boys while moving every two to three years, but they adjusted and are well rounded because of their experiences.

    They will remember things they had an opportunity to do all their lives and know how blessed they were. However, both weren’t too interested in being military when they grew up. They lived it growing up and were ready to explore new territory.

    They are still very proud of their Dad, their country and all the people that have the stamina to join and live the nomad life style. We were much better people because of it.

    Military people form bonds that last life times. We were stationed off and on with people we knew for 20 years. You become like family to each other. Living so far from relatives, you learn to rely on each other in good times and bad. That’s sadly lacking in our business world today.

    I better close, but you can tell I will stick up for military people whenever I have an opportunity. Sure we have some bad apples that make it hard for everyone else, but in general they are good decent people only wanting to serve their country. A little thanks once in a while makes it feel wonderful!!!

    God Bless the United States and the people who serve us, we owe them everything!!! And God bless you and Jo Anne for caring.

    Van Allen and Barbara I

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