An Army Family Prepares for Deployment

The Colors are Cased – a battalion ritual as soldiers prepare to deploy. Photo by Stanley Leary.

By Dorie Griggs

The last few weeks have been full of rituals and changes.

October 12-13 was Parents Weekend at The Citadel. My son graduated in 2011, but I am still in touch with quite a few families with cadets there. It is fun to relive the fun weekends through their stories and photographs. Since the first year cadets or knobs are promoted and the seniors receive their rings this weekend, it is a very happy time to visit the otherwise serious campus.

This year, I will admit to spending a bit more time looking at Facebook photos of this fun weekend. It was a great fun way to escape the ritual our family was about to begin. . . deployment.

Our oldest son is about to deploy to the Middle East. He was home in early October for his pre-deployment leave. He spent most of that time living it up with good friends. We saw him for a couple of meals and a going away party his father and step-mother threw for him. It was tough not having more time just to visit, but I was very happy to see him enjoying all his friends. Continue reading

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Citadel Parent Crafts Her Own Graduation Ritual

Chelle, Nelson and Brian outside the Summerall Chapel before the commissioning practice, May 5. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

We just returned from commencement weekend at The Citadel. We arrived Wednesday night to prepare for several days worth of activities.  One thing about a military college, they have plenty of rituals to help the graduates and their families make the transition.

On Thursday, I began my own graduation ritual.  My daughter, Chelle, and I visited campus early to deliver small candy bowls and notes I had prepared for a number of people on campus who have been very helpful over the past 4 years.  It gave me the opportunity to say good-bye to these folks who answered scores of questions from me.

We ended up with a bonus visit with my son, Nelson, that morning.  I was driving down the Avenue of Remembrance in front of the chapel when 2 cadets were about to cross the road.  I waved them across but one started walking toward our car.  It was my son! After 4 years all cadets still look a like. The Army ROTC cadets were heading to the chapel for their commissioning service practice. They practice everything there before a big event.

Star of the West Finals. This event is the culmination of many hours of practice in rifle drill. The winner will be named the "Best Drilled Cadet" and will have his or her name inscribed on the Star of the West Monument located near the flagpole on Summerall Field. That cadet will also wear the Star of the West Medal. The ship, Star of the West, was fired upon by Citadel cadets in 1861. From Schedule of Events for The Corps of Cadets, http://www.citadel.edu. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

After delivering the candy Chelle and I watched the Star of the West Finals, a competition to find the best-drilled cadet. It’s one of the graduation week events I had never had the opportunity to see. An added bonus was getting to see a first year cadet whom I had spoken to by phone but never met in person. He was wearing the #1 out of over 20 contestants in the competition.

My cadet said he was not attending the awards convocation and the baccalaureate service that afternoon so we visited the gardens of Magnolia Plantation in the afternoon.  I had already been warned by my friend Loretta, the mom of a ’10 graduate, that the cadets try to get in as much time with their friends this last weekend so I knew to make some of our own plans. The evening was spent with the family of a fellow Citadel Ya Ya. We look forward to seeing the Reigerix family each time we are on campus.  My daughter was relieved to find out Rachelle is a rising senior cadet.  In her words, “Great now we have someone to visit next year!”

Nelson Lalli receives his bars from his father Blake Lalli (right) and his uncle, John Lalli, LT Col.(Retired) U.S. Army (left). Photo by Stanley Leary.

Friday morning, we attended the commissioning service for the Army ROTC cadets.  The ceremony started at 8:00 a.m. but we arrived at the chapel at 7:00 a.m. to make sure we had good seats. There were 97 cadets commissioned that morning so the chapel was packed with family and friends. It was a moving ceremony executed with military precision. My ex husband and his brother, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel pinned Nelson’s shoulder boards on during the ceremony. One of the most moving parts of the ceremony came when the cadets receiving their commissions took their oath.  From our seats I watched a sea of right hands in the air all wearing their Citadel ring.

2LT Nelson Lalli receives his first salute from SFC Keith Polidoro. Photo by Stanley Leary.

At the end of the ceremony, the newly commissioned second lieutenants went outside to meet up with their chosen non-commissioned officer to receive their first salute. Some new officers passed a silver dollar to the NCO.  Some NCO’s passed a challenge coin to the new officer. (One mother told me she ended up paying over $40 for the silver dollar for her son.) Of course handshakes, hugs and photos followed the event. A scene repeated throughout the weekend of events.

We had a quick visit with the president of The Citadel and his wife, Lt. Gen John Rosa and Donna, have been gracious hosts to all the parents over the years.  They have also visited Atlanta for the annual “Pre-knob” gathering the Atlanta Citadel Club host.

Dorie and Chelle visit with the president of The Citadel, Lt. Gen John Rosa and his wife, Donna. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Since the forecast called for rain in the afternoon about the time of the Long Gray Line parade I asked Lt. Gen Rosa what would happen in case of rain.  He told me that unless there was lightening, the parade would go on.  His words reassured me later that afternoon.

At noon we attended the reception for the new Lifetime members of the Citadel Alumni Association. We gave our son the membership for his graduation present. It was a wonderful event, not dampened a bit by the rain that started to fall as we arrived.

The 2012 Summerall Guards perform in honor of the Class of 2011. Photo by Stanley Leary.

At 2:15 we took our spot on Summerall Field to watch the 2012 Summerall Guards perform in honor of the Class of 2011. We made sure to take plenty of photos for our friends who could not be there to see their cadets perform. My son and his fellow 2011 Summerall Guard watched in appreciation. We all watched as the skies began to look ominous again.

As if on cue, the rain began after the Summerall Guard performance.  Scores of people were already in place for the Long Gray Line graduation parade that was scheduled for 3:00. People began to speculate that the parade would be cancelled, but I relayed what the president had told me earlier in the day.  Only lightening would keep the parade from happening. Scores of families kept glued to the radar on their smart phones.

Waiting in the rain for the Long Gray Line ceremony. Photo by Dorie Griggs.

We huddled under umbrellas, under trees and some just stood there and let the rain soak through their clothes. Hundreds of, if not a few thousand, people surrounded the field in what at times was a total downpour. All of us waiting to see the Class of 2011 form one long line and march away from their classmates and toward the reviewing stands and their family and friends.

I can’t think of another event that would keep people outside in such awful conditions. It was a moment worth getting totally soaked to watch. As the command was given, the cadets locked arms and marched forward.

Members of Bravo Company march forward as part of the Long Gray Line. Photo by Marty Viegas.

The rain slowed down to a drizzle and we could see the faces of the cadets beaming as they moved forward. We were told that 1st Battalion was a bit disruptive during their Long Gray Line practice.  They kept doing “the wave” while in line.  On Friday when they reached our side of the field shouts of, “Do the wave.” spread down the line. With the TAC officers monitoring the line, and the threat of not walking at graduation was held over their heads, they did not do the wave. 

The Class of 2011 wave to their companies at the end of the graduation parade. Photo by Marty Viegas.

They did however wave to their company mates across the field. The cadets also didn’t leave their shoes on the filed as I had seen done in 2008.  An assistant commandant told me that was not a sanctioned tradition and anyone seen leaving their shoes would not walk either. Handshakes, hugs, and photos again took place.

Chelle and Dorie congratulate the one of the newest Lifetime members of the Citadel Alumni Association. Photo by Stanley Leary.

We missed the reception at the president’s house so we could go to the hotel to dry off and relax. To my pleasant surprise Nelson came with us and stayed through dinner and to watch a Star Wars movie on TV before he left to attend a graduation party with his buddies.

Our 12 year old was thrilled as well.  She told me, “This is just like old times.” Up next – Part II Graduation day.

The members of Bravo Company Class of 2011.

A New Blue Star Mom Shows Supports for Fallen Soldier

The Patriot Guard Riders line the drive to shield the fallen soldier's family from any possible protestors.

As I get ready to transition from the mom of a cadet at The Citadel to the mom of an U.S. Army 2LT, a fellow Citadel Ya Ya suggested I join the Blue Star Mothers (BSM), a nonprofit for mothers with children in the military. I signed up just last week. 

Two days later I received an email from the BSM asking members to please attend the funeral for a fallen soldier from our area, Spc. Gary L. Nelson, III of Woodstock, GA. The Westboro Baptist Church group was threatening to protest the proceedings and they wanted to get as many people as possible out to show support for the family and keep them from seeing or hearing any protesters.

The Patriot Guard Riders wait outside the sanctuary for the family of Spc Gary L. Nelson, III to arrive.

I posted a note to my Facebook page to ask anyone who was in the area to attend too if they could.  I received a flood of supportive responses from friends, many of them mothers of cadets at The Citadel. Since I had never attended a military funeral, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  As the mom of a future Army officer, I felt it was my duty to show the Nelson family support.

I arrived at the church an hour and a half before the funeral.  The crowds already formed along the road to the church. After parking in a neighborhood across the street, I walked to the church. Along the way, I met a man and his young son. He was a Baptist pastor who lived in the neighborhood.

I began to take photos of the gathering crowd. Some wore patriotic clothing, others carried signs of support for the Nelson’s and many had American Flags. They represented all different generations. When I crossed the street and saw the crowd gathered there, my eyes began to tear up for the first time since arriving.

Johnny “Swatt” Badger of the Patriot Guard Riders instructs the people gathered to salute if you are a veteran or put their hands over their hearts as the family passes.

A huge gathering of the members of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) was just inside the parking lot.  Scores of motorcycles of varying sizes and types were lined up.  Many of them had American Flags flying. The riders were gathered in a group apparently receiving instructions for the morning. Once the group broke up a line formed at the rear of a car as 2 people began to hand out large American Flags to the PGR members. They took the flags and began to line up on both sides of the entrance to the sanctuary of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church.

Also watching the events as they unfolded were a group of ROTC cadets.  I could tell they were cadets by the leadership patch on their arms, but I didn’t know which program they represented. I said hello and asked where they went to school. They were all with North Georgia College and State University, which has an excellent Army ROTC department. After a brief time of good-natured kidding (The Citadel and North Georgia are rivals) we had a great conversation. I took a group photo, which by then also included a few members of the National Guard who came over to say hello.

Army ROTC cadets form North Georgia College & State University and visiting National Guard members wait in the parking lot of the church for the family to arrive.

Like most of the crowd they did not know the fallen soldier, but the cadets and a hand full of National Guard soldiers heard about the funeral and the rumored protest and decided it was important for them to come and support the family.

I moved on to take photos of the scene unfolding in front of the church. The Patriot Guard Riders were evenly spaced from both sides of the front door of the sanctuary and along the sidewalk. Each person held an American flag on a long white flag pole. They wore their leather vests, which displayed patches of the organizations, and/or ideals they represent.

The Honor Guard during their practice.

At quick glance I could tell many of these mostly men were Vietnam Vets.  A few children members joined the tribute. A little farther away from the front door a group of JROTC cadets began to take their place along the sidewalk. As I took photos my eyes filled with tears. I can’t imagine the grief the Nelson family feels. Seeing so many people come out to support the Nelson family filled me with emotion. I hope the family will be able to find some small comfort from all those who gathered to honor their son and to thank them for their ultimate sacrifice.

Members of the Georgia Department of Defense pay their respects.

It was time for the family to arrive so I moved to the entrance of the parking lot and met a number of people who came from some distance to support the family. People with large flags lined up along the street. At one point a woman stepped forward and asked the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance together. A group of easily a couple hundred put their hands over their hearts and recited the Pledge.

An announcement was made that the family was almost to the church. A representative of the Patriot Guard Riders stepped forward to instruct us that current and former members of the military should salute and all others could place their hands on their hearts. I watched as this group of strangers quietly followed the instructions.

The Patriot Guard Riders surround the area where the service is taking place.

When the procession of police escorts, funeral home vehicles and family members arrived they were greeted with scores of supporters at attention quietly paying tribute to their son.  As cars with family and friends drove by where I stood, I could see the passengers and drivers were all filled with emotion, wiping the tears from their eyes.

Once the family and visitors were inside for the funeral some people began to leave for the Georgia National Cemetery. I decided to go as well. Along the 20 minute ride from the church in Woodstock to the cemetery in Canton, I could see members of the local fire department on the overpasses hanging American flags.  A group of people waited in a shopping center parking lot along the route.

The Army ROTC cadets stand at attention during the Honor Guard practice prior to the family arriving to the cemetery.

The cadets from North Georgia College were at the cemetery along with the Honor Guard and representatives of the Georgia Department of Defense (GDoD). I took photos as the honor Guard began to practice.

When the family arrived, they were escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders.  Once again the PGR took their flags and lined up around the gathering spot for the service. The Honor Guard, cadets and the GDoD members stood at attention.

Fortunately, the protestors never arrived. The Nelson family and friends could say good bye to their soldier in peace.

Previous entries by Dorie Griggs:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

How The Citadel “Ya-Yas” Came to Be

Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

The Citadel: BVA’s and  Summerall Guards

The Citadel: Recognition Day and Ring Weekend

Care Packages for Cadets: The Citadel Heroes Project

The Citadel Bond Renews Parents’ Long Time Friendships

The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs

The Citadel: Saying Good-Bye, But Always Connected

A Sister, a Mom, A Family Prepares for Military Life

Survival Skills to Succeed as a Citadel Mom

Here’s an open letter to the Westboro Baptist Church  from another contributor asking the church members to stop protesting fallen soldiers’ funerals and instead protest at government venues where policy is changed.

A Sister, a Mom, a Family Prepares for Military Life

It’s hard to believe in just over a month my oldest son will graduate from The Citadel. The time, for me at least, has flown by. Looking through photos from his college career, I’m forced to believe the time really has gone by.

Chelle and Nelson in Charleston, September 2007.

Our daughter, Chelle, is the measuring stick. She was a little girl in 3rd grade when Nelson started his knob year (freshman).  She is now a young lady in 6th grade and about 12 inches taller. The photos tell the story best. During the 2007-08 school year she always brought a treasured stuffed animal on our visits to The Citadel. Now she brings a book.

My oldest son and my youngest child have shared a very special bond since she was a baby and he was the protective 10-year-old brother. For a recent language arts assignment, Chelle was asked to write about the person she admires most and use the lyrics for a song.  She wrote about her oldest brother and composed a song for him since she couldn’t find one to sum up her admiration. As she sang it for me this morning, a tear came to her eye. I had a lump in my throat as well.

Last night, I attended a production of Theater of War presented at Emory University. The production is making it’s way around the country. Through the ancient readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes the audience hears how the warrior and his/her family can be affected by war both physically and psychologically. The production is supported by a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the USO.

Chelle,Nelson and Dorie on Corps Day Weekend, March 2011. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Listening to my daughter sing of her admiration for her brother this morning after attending the performance of Theater of War last night it struck me that we stand in a long line of military families. For thousands of years, families have sent their loved ones of to do battle, never sure if they will see their son or daughter again. We will enter that ancient tradition once our oldest goes through his officer training.

My 12-year-old daughter tears up during prayer time in her youth group at church just thinking about her older brother joining the Army. I listen to the stories of my fellow Citadel Ya Ya’s as they tell of the jumping in happy anticipation every time the phone rings in the hope that it is their child calling from over seas.

For the past 10 years I have studied traumatic stress and it’s affect on people exposed to trauma. My last year at Columbia Theological Seminary, I developed a model of chaplaincy for journalists of all faiths or none at all who cover traumatic events. This work has offered me the opportunity to meet leaders in the field of traumatic stress studies like Dr. Frank Ochberg, Dr. Jonathan Shay, and Dr. Steven Southwick, as well as individuals who have a traumatic stress diagnosis. During this time, I have had the honor and privilege to have attended conferences hosted by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

Family photo, November 2010. Photo by Stanley Leary.

I now serve on the board of the nonprofit, Care For The Troops, an organization that teaches civilian therapists about military culture so we will all be more sensitive to the needs of members of the military and their families.

My studies in the area of traumatic stress began years before my son decided the military is the career for him.  I’ve lectured to faith-based communities and journalism programs about traumatic stress.  I have come to realize that sometimes as a mom, you can know too much.

My son has received an excellent education and training at The Citadel and in the Army ROTC program there.  I know he is as prepared as anyone can be to enter the U.S. Army.  I also know it will still be tough.

Graduation is a month away.  My son will report for officer training June 8.  After that who knows.

I do know I can draw on the strength of my friends and fellow military moms to get us through, just as generations of families before us have done.

Previous entries by Dorie Griggs:

The Making of a Military Mom

Mom Readies for Son’s Military College

The Citadel: Year One a No Fly Zone for Hovering Parents

How The Citadel “Ya-Yas” Came to Be

Learning Leadership and Ethics at The Citadel

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

The Citadel: BVA’s and  Summerall Guards

The Citadel: Recognition Day and Ring Weekend

Care Packages for Cadets: The Citadel Heroes Project

The Citadel Bond Renews Parents’ Long Time Friendships

The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs

The Citadel: Saying Good-Bye, But Always Connected

The Citadel Trained Me as Well as My Son

Dorie's son, Nelson (center), poses with other ROTC cadets from his Regiment during the summer LDAC.

The cadets at The Citadel form a tight bond. And as I mentioned in the earlier blog How The Citadel Ya-Ya’s Came to Be, I found a group of good friends as well. Now that I’m making the mental transition from being the mom of a cadet to being the mom of an Army 2LT in less than five months, I’ve learned the network of mom’s only increases.

This past summer my son attended the Leader Development and Assessment Course (LDAC) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. About 6,400 Army ROTC cadets from around the country passed through LDAC last summer. LDAC is a 29 day leadership test. The ROTC cadets are graded on a series of challenges. That grade is added to the grade they receive from the ROTC program at their school.

Ultimately these scores and their grade point average and a few other factors will determine where they will be assigned within the Army after graduation.

The Public Affairs Office (PAO) there kept up a blog and a Facebook page to keep the parents, wives, husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends informed. They’d post updates on the schedule, information on how to send mail, photos from the various challenges and also provided live streaming of the graduation ceremony. This was my first introduction to the wider dimensions of being an Army family.

Cadets from 5th Regiment at their graduation ceremony. Photo by Jesse Beals.

I combed the blog and Facebook site daily looking for a photo of our cadet. For 29 days I had no sign of him. Then the day after graduation, they posted a photo of  the cadets marching to graduation. There he was on the far right in front carrying the Platoon Guidon!

I was introduced to parents across the country through the Facebook site. We had our own discussion group on the Facebook page for parents of cadets.  There were also discussion groups for spouses and girlfriends. It did appear the wives, moms and girlfriends were the most active on the discussion boards. An occasional dad would chime in. I also learned the Army is active in social media and several discussion boards are available.

The experience helped me see that the training my son received at The Citadel prepared him for the challenge of LDAC.  What I also realized is that The Citadel experience prepared me well to send him off to this challenge. It never occurred to me to be concerned whether he passed the PT test, as so many other parents on the boards were. The Citadel has a very rigorous program and physical training is one of my son’s real strengths.

The group photo is of 5th Regiment Platoon A posted by the PAO of LDAC at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Many of the posts were of family members upset that they couldn’t talk to their cadet for most of the 29 day experience. The cadets’ phones are locked up the first few days and returned later. I had already gone through that communication shut down during the first week of my son’s first year and then again the year my son tried out for the Summerall Guards.

I don’t for one second equate what I went through as a parent supporting my son at The Citadel with the challenges of an Army ROTC cadet. And it is absolutely not in the same category as that of the parent of a deployed soldier.  However, I do see that being the parent of a Citadel cadet is great training for the tougher challenges of being the mom of a young Army officer.

Boy, did I need that training.  I had no idea at that time how useful all of those experiences would be later on for understanding, accepting and supporting a young Army officer. I am now very grateful to have been a distant companion to our son on the road less traveled.

Helpful links:

Leader Development and Assessment Course

Operation WarriorForge

Army Social Media Handbook 2011

Army Social Networks

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