Last week my family and I drove to San Diego to watch the U.S. Marine boot camp graduation for my son. I didn’t realize I would be learning a life lesson from a twenty-one year old kid. Oh, the Marines had knocked him down a few rungs and built him up better; more respectful, more polite, but that was to be expected. The lesson I hadn’t intended to learn was about staying positive even in the face of adversity.
We arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego on Family Day, where we would be able to see our son and brother a day before his graduation ceremony. As we made our way through the base, we saw different platoons in various stages, performing different drills and marches. We later learned that Marines and recruits on the base could immediately tell the approximate time a recruit had been on base due to tell-tale signs, but to me, the only ones who stood out were the newest.
Those poor kids had another twelve weeks of hell ahead of them. The only way they would make it was by staying positive. My son, along with his platoon and five others were just completing the most difficult thirteen weeks their lives had ever seen. Four of them didn’t make it. To me, that wasn’t the surprising part. As I heard more and more about what the recruits had been through, I was surprised at the huge percentage that made it through to graduation. One of them had finished the last fourteen miles of a hike on a broken ankle because everyone was “pretty sure” it was only sprained. Several finished such hikes on sprained ankles. Many of the recruits had hiked beyond blisters that covered huge portions of the bottoms of their feet, but that had finally started to heal in spite of continued abuse.
Staying positive had to have been the key. But staying positive is far easier said than done.
I wondered what had kept them, and so many like them, going. After all, they were only kids. Many of them had never even had a job or paycheck before getting off the bus at boot camp. But they had kept going. Staying positive had to have been the key. But staying positive is far easier said than done when your feet are bleeding into your boots and a drill sergeant, who could break you in half, is screaming your worthlessness with such force and proximity that his spittle sprays in your face.
Don’t get me wrong. I see the need for the methods used in boot camp. I respect and honor the men who spend their lives training soldiers who need to learn how to deal with pain and abuse. After all, standing in front of a frothing drill sergeant is going to feel like nuzzling up to a nursing mother if the Taliban or ISIS ever gets ahold of them. In fact, it is these trainers who “subtly” (what a strange word to be the most appropriate one to be used, here) teach the recruits about staying positive and sticking together by becoming (at least in the beginning) their common enemy.
After watching our son run in formation near the end of six graduating platoons, we were surprised at how thin he and the others were. My brothers were state wrestling champions, who were all-obsessed with dropping weight. Anymore, wrestlers would be dropped from a competition for having body fat down to the levels that these marines did. But as the troops paused in their run and faced the crowd of proud family members for a quick photo opportunity, you could see in their faces that each of them realized the magnitude of what they had accomplished. To me, all of that physical achievement was dwarfed by the mental achievement that each recruit had made by staying positive.
I have a choice on what I choose to think about. One choice will hold me back. The other will assist me in staying positive.
Immediately following the graduation ceremony on the following day, my son put his bags in the car and we started to drive off the base. My son told us that his room overlooked the area where new recruits got off the busses every week. He talked about what an advantage it was to be able to look out over the new recruits and see how far he had come. Then he told us about other rooms that were situated to look out over the parade deck. He told me how badly he felt for the recruits who had those rooms and who constantly had to look out over the graduation ceremonies, seeing only how far they had left to go.
That was a life lesson to me. Unlike room selection for the marine recruits, I have a choice on what I choose to think about. One choice will hold me back. The other will assist me in staying positive. Because of choices our family made to add older and traumatized children to our family, we experience challenges. Some of those difficulties have names like Reactive Attachment Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Those challenges account for snail-like progress in preparing children for responsible lives as adults. Staying positive is difficult.
In fact, I would say that staying positive in such circumstances is impossible if you can only focus on how far you have to go. Ah… but turn around. Look away from the parade deck and over at the new recruits. Look at how far you and your children have come! What amazing accomplishments we have all made, together. We know what the end-goal is in our own challenges. We know how to get there. But the only way we will make it, while walking on damaged ankles and bleeding feet, is to make each step and then another. In the midst of our greatest challenges, we can’t focus on graduation; only on finishing the long and painful hike by taking one excruciating step at a time. If we can continue to do that, in its own time, graduation will come on its own.
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