Less than 1 Percent: Who Serves in the U.S. Armed Forces

Darryl St. George, a Navy corpsman with Weapons Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., reads a book as the sun rises over a temporary base nicknamed "Patrol Base Suc" in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Photo by David Gilkey/NPR.

Meet a former history teacher who now saves Marine lives on Afghanistan’s front-lines or a Marine on patrol who worries that American’s interest is falling away.

All week, National Public Radio has been broadcasting the stories of individuals who joined the military to fight in America’s wars. Family tradition, patriotism, a sense of purpose – there many reasons for military service cited in  NPR series,  “Who Serves.”

Beyond the personal stories is the large picture, NPR offers a graphic look By the Numbers: Today’s Military. There are maps that show where military members are stationed. And, there are plenty of graphs like one on gender. The Air Force has the lowest ratio of men to women, 4 males for every 1 female. The Marines have the highest ratio, 15.1 males for every 1 female.

If you’re in military, why do you serve? Email me your story at bobrien@wusf.org  if you’d like to share it on the blog.

If you’re a civilian, did you consider joining and what contributed to your decision not to? Share your story by emailing me at bobrien@wusf.org.

Freedom Is Not Free, Military Families Pay the Price Daily

On Monday, we celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence  on July 4, 1776 by delegates of the original thirteen colonies.  The first Independence Day celebration occurred on July 4,1777 although our freedom was not fully achieved until September 3, 1783 when the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris and ended the Revolutionary War.

America’s first freedom, the dissolution of Britain’s rule over us, was accomplished because men were willing to leave their families to fight and die for this great cause.    Now, 235 years later, every freedom that we cherish and sometimes take for granted  is defended by the men and women of our Armed Forces.  Without the sacrifices and selfless acts of these brave heroes, life as we know it would not exist.

My thoughts on July 4th were on the images of deployment day: the line up of duffel bags at Fort Carson representing families that were about to say good-bye, small children clinging to their daddy’s leg while he was giving mommy that last hug, my son’s final embrace with his wife just after he and I shared ours.

Deployment day at Fort Carson for Tracie's son.

I tearfully relive the moments standing side by side with Army wives as we watched our men disappear into that gym.  Our families are just a fraction of the many military families that are currently separated by deployments.

I am reminded of the anguish on the faces of two mothers on the day their fallen hero sons were laid to rest here in Denver.  I think of the two wounded warriors and their parents that are part of our Colorado Military Families Ministry group and what they have gone through.

July 4th is a day to celebrate our nation’s freedom, but let us not forget to honor the heroes and their families that endure the burden of defending that freedom.

A special thanks to all of our men and women in uniform and their families–you are the reason we celebrate Independence Day.

Military Mom Collects Prayer Patches for Military Families

Military Families Ministry  (MFM) does a variety of projects to support service members and their families.  One of my favorite projects is our prayer patch ministry which is quickly spreading to a national effort.

A prayer patch is a small knitted or crocheted cloth that we send to our heroes, their families, and our chaplains as a reminder that people are praying for them.  Service members carry the patches in their pockets to remind them of God’s love and protection as they serve–I gave my son, Josh, a brown patch with a cross sewn on it the day he left for Afghanistan.

A prayer patch made by Sandy in Pennsylvania.

Family members carry the patches as a reminder of God’s peace and comfort as they await their loved ones return from war zones–I carry a red, white, and blue patch in my purse.  Chaplains use our prayer patches to encourage and comfort service members in basic training, war zones, and counseling situations.

We have individuals and groups across the country knitting and crocheting prayer patches for us.  Each patch is prayed over  by one of our MFM groups prior to shipping.  So far this month (June 2011), MFM has sent almost 800 prayer patches–most of which went to the chaplains we support.

Prayer patches made by groups in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

Our Colorado group is sending prayer patches to Josh for his entire platoon and we have already sent cards and patches to the wives of the married soldiers in Josh’s squad.

I have recently connected with a chaplain who is currently serving in Afghanistan.  He and nine other chaplains are ministering to over 4000 soldiers for a year-long deployment.  MFM is taking on the challenge of getting 4000 prayer patches so every soldier these chaplains have contact with can carry a prayer patch.  If you knit or crochet–will you help us?  Visit our website to view the guidelines and download a pattern or email me at tracie@militaryfamiliesministry.com.

Deployment Week: A Mom’s Realities

Tracie Ciambotti with her son Joshua Nearhoof, an Army Sergeant out of Fort Carson.

As a military mom, the one thing you don’t want to see or hear the week your son deploys to a war zone is a story of a fallen hero or a wounded warrior.  Unfortunately, I have seen and heard both in the last few days. 

Saturday morning on the front page of the Denver Post was the picture of a mother and a father holding a small child as they sat on a horse-drawn carriage which held the body of their son.  The baby was the ten month old daughter of  Cpl Brandon Kirton who was killed in Afghanistan in May.  Tears streamed down my face as I read the story about this fallen hero.  He had only spent two weeks with his precious baby girl.     

As hard as I try to control my thoughts and emotions, I can’t help but think, this could be me.  This is a reality of life as a military mom, when your child is deployed in a war zone, you know that at any moment on any day you could be the one getting the knock on the door with news that will forever change your life.  It is a constant effort to manage these thoughts and not allow them to take over your day.

Yesterday morning, I received a phone call from a friend who is also a military mom and a member of my Military Families Ministry group in Colorado.  She received a call from her son, who is an Army staff sergeant from Fort Riley, Kansas, and currently deployed in Iraq.  His location was hit by mortar attacks overnight and he was injured in the attack.  He is now in Germany being treated and prepared for transport to the states. We are so thankful that he is alive and was able to make that call home–but we know he has a long road of recovery ahead of him.  He has a wife and two small children, who–along with his parents–wait anxiously to hear where he will be transported to so they can join him.  

These events are harsh reminders of the possibilities that exist this next year as my son serves in Afghanistan.  I could be facing either  of these situations; however, I must choose not to focus on the what-ifs because they are nothing but a trap for fear and heartache .

A Letter to The Citadel Class of 2015

Cadet Nelson Lalli spraying knob, Jason Mag, prior to the parade. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Dear Class of 2015 (your parents and family),

Congratulations on your graduation from high school. In a few months you will begin your journey on the road less traveled by entering your knob year at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.

My son just graduated from The Citadel, May 7.  Since I made a study of the cadets, the fourth class system, and the school the past four years, I thought I’d offer you a few tips in the spirit of Mary Schmich’s 1997 column, Advice, Like youth, probably just wasted on the young.

In her column, Schmich begins with two words, “Wear sunscreen.” To The Citadel Class of 2015 (and their parents), I say:

Wear Insect Repellant.

Yes, sunscreen is good too, but for the many hours you will spend on the parade deck near the marshy waters of the Ashley River with gnats or no-see-ums swarming around you, insect repellant will become your best friend.

Exercise.

Many would be cadet recruits (first year students) burn out the first few weeks because they did not do the physical training required before reporting on Matriculation Day. You’ll need to meet the minimum requirement for sit-ups, push-ups and the 2-mile run.  If you are on a military contract, your goal should be to meet or exceed the maximum required.

The knobs doing push-ups during Parents Weekend of my son's first year at the Citadel. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Break in your shoes.

The plain toe black oxfords, boots and your running shoes should be worn daily throughout the summer to break them in and to help avoid the blisters that will come from walking, running and exercising in your shoes. First year cadets, or knobs, do a “Knobbie walk” of 120 paces a minute.  That will take a toll on your feet too.

Be the “Ghost knob.”

Do what you are supposed to do. Don’t raise your profile with the upper-class cadets.

Be a team player.

In addition to doing what you are supposed to do; i.e. keep a neat appearance, keep your room in order, keep up your physical training; make sure you support your fellow knobs.

Keep your grades up.

Yes, you are in college. Some cadets make the critical error of putting all their time into the military aspect of life at The Citadel. Ultimately though, your success in the Corps of Cadets and in life after school will be determined by your grades. To be a cadet officer, you should keep your grades up. The military also factors your grades in when determining your assignment post graduation.

My son's room during knob year. They always received outstanding room during inspections. Photo by Stanley Leary.

Keep your parents informed.

You are the one going through the tough challenge, but your parents are your biggest supporters. When they ask you questions, be polite and answer them. Email, Skype, and call as you can. (Parents Note: their time is not their own, so wait until they contact you.)

Notes to the Parents of Incoming Knobs:

I call The Citadel a No Fly Zone for Helicopter Parents. This is your cadet’s time to take responsibility for himself or herself. Leave it up to them to take care of matters relating to their schooling and education when ever possible

Learn the web site. Most of what you want to know can be found there, including the training modules for hell week and other times during the year.

Take lots of photos. The time will fly by.

Join the Facebook groups for your cadet’s battalion and/or company.

Email or call the Citadel Family Association representative for your cadet’s Company, battalion or the area you live in.  They can be a tremendous resource for advice and support.

Bring a book to campus when you visit knob year. The knobs never know exactly when they can leave the barracks.  Be prepared to wait. Use this time to read or better yet, get to know the other parents waiting. You’ll see them on big weekends all four years.

Book mark this blog entry and refer to the links throughout the year:

The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs

To read more about my journey through the four years of The Citadel’s Fourth class system, read my previous entries in order, starting with:

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

A New Blue Star Mom Shows Supports for Fallen Soldier

Celebration, Tradition, Ritual: The Long Gray Line

Citadel Parent Crafts Her Own Graduation Ritual

Graduation Day: No Longer the Mother of a Cadet

And parents, Wear Insect Repellant during your visits too.

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.

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