In February 2007, Marci Freeman waited with her son, First Lieutenant Jonathan Freeman, before he boarded the bus at Fort Rlley, Kansas, en route to his second deployment, this time to the Iraqi/Syrian border. (Photo by Jesse Pitt)
Long ago in another galaxy (so it seems), I remember how my son, Jonathan, used to command his Star Wars buddies. His gentle nature receded as plastic light sabers slashed our kitchen to keep the world safe.
Fast forward: Jonathan finishes a Harvard graduate thesis on international relations, and out of the blue informs his dad and me that he has enlisted in the United States Army. He’s already passed the physical, triumphed at interviews, aced the OCS (officer candidate school) exam, and signed on for three years.
I cried for three days.
Of course we talked about it then, trying to make sense of it. We’re still trying, three years later. Even now, four months after our first lieutenant packed his gear, checked his M4, hugged us good-bye, and set off for his second (volunteered) tour of duty in Iraq. He now serves as Artillery Officer on BTT (Border Transition Team) 4233 near Syria, training the Iraqi Border Police (IBP).
Before leaving, Jonathan shared a book he thought might help us understand: AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service—and How It Hurts Our Country (Roth-Douquet & Schaeffer). We knew that most civilian leaders making military policy have no military experience, nor do their children serve. This growing gap, I learned, results in uneducated policies and unworkable solutions. Before the Vietnam War, virtually every family (including our own) naturally provided military service in each generation, but ours came of age mistrusting the military. As a result, the tradition broke and families discouraged children from even considering military service.
Jonathan’s enlistment was a personal choice that represents a change in this trend. My research, as well as meeting his army colleagues, helped me understand their conviction in taking personal responsibility for defending a world becoming more vulnerable and complex.
I also learned that we might have foreseen Jonathan’s enlistment, based on some of his earlier activities. We’d seen his obvious joy and considerable skill overseeing high school and university student governments, as well as in volunteer police service in New York City, before and after 9/11. I now understand that these exercises frequently act as training grounds for military officers, and that such inclinations often predict proficiency in military command—and civilian leadership.
With tendencies similar to many officers, Jonathan nevertheless differs from most enlisted, the vast majority being Christian, Republican, and conservative. He is a Jewish liberal Democrat.
I also want to emphasize that, while AWOL addressed a military lack from the upper class, a lack that Jonathan feels strongly should be rectified, we are firmly middle class. But we do consider ourselves privileged in other ways.
Not Your Average GI’s Family
Three years ago, his enlistment flummoxed us and our friends: Nobody we knew served in the military, not these days. We serve our community, our country, and the world in a different way, a way we find personally fulfilling, and beneficial to our country’s peace-building efforts.
From third to twelfth grades, Jonathan attended Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment (MSAE) in Fairfield. All of its students, teachers, and parents practice the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program.
Having been raised in a community that practices TM makes my son’s enlistment all the more, well, interesting. His MSAE classmates now excel in education, law, medicine, business, media, social services, and fine arts. A few others have also entered the military. Like Jonathan, their ideals center around service, justice, diplomacy, and humanitarian issues. Their choice is a calling, yet right now the Defense Department uses them, and refers to them, as “warfighters.”
Warfighter, Peacekeeper, or Peaceful Warrior?
Though it’s my story, Jonathan’s voice belongs here, too, in cobbled-together emails from the last few months. He writes:
“I am about as liberal as they come, which usually confuses people as to how I ended up in the Army, but to make a long story short, it was something I felt I had to do. My MSAE education encouraged me to follow my own individual path. So for me, once I came to believe that military service was something that I needed to go through, there was no turning back.
“As for being in Iraq now: At this time in my life, I have chosen to be a soldier, and this is what we, as soldiers, do. We are trained to fight wars, even though we would like to be of service in other ways, as well. We serve where we are needed. We do the jobs that many are unable and a number are unwilling, for whatever their reason, to do. Let me be clear, I do not (unlike some) begrudge any individual for not signing up. At the same time, we are a deploying army and, given the choice I have made to be a soldier right now, to be anywhere else simply does not work for me.
“Another major consideration is that helping to train the Iraqi Army and Police, while I do not think this may have the immediate results that many expect, does give our political leaders the flexibility to pull more units off the line, so that fewer soldiers will need to serve here.
“In my current duties with Team Sandman, I help advise and assist the IBP to become self-sufficient at guarding the Syrian border by teaching them some standard military skills used in any thriving military environment worldwide. We try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to teach the skills in a manner that allows them to put an Iraqi flavor on it, knowing that if we try to make them into the Iraqi version of the U.S. Army, we will fail. We also prevent foreign fighters from entering Iraq, and assist U.S. forces however we can, since there is way too much area and not enough of us.
“As for TM practice, unlike my last tour here, this time my responsibilities are very different, and I can do it. If I’m asked about the results, well, I have not shot anyone yet, even though it’s well over 100 degrees every day, and the guy who said I was too late for mango ice cream really tempted me.
“And I also have to say that I appreciate all the group meditations for world peace, and from my perspective here, I really wish you all would hurry up.”
Growing a Bigger Picture
Given Jonathan’s thinking, background, and skills, I now see military service as a natural step toward his eventual work, which may well include university teaching, international think tank research, or participating in diplomacy. I hear about some of his missions (mercifully, after they’re over), and his community building with Iraqi nationalists. My pride holds its breath until he returns home.
I see how, when soldiers serve, it affects everyone who knows them. Uniforms—and the news—now have the face and name of someone we love. Our friends’ emails are a well of support. “As parents, you also go into war every day. You fight every battle, with only your love, your prayers to keep you safe, to keep you from harm’s way.” “Jonathan has turned out to be a person of conscience. I am inspired by his offering all his special strengths to taking action toward to make the world a better place for all.” “We wish him safety and unflagging peace wherever he travels. May he be surrounded by a protective shield of love and ahimsa [nonviolence].” A favorite email frankly remarked, “Jonathan is totally bonkers, but I wish him well and a very safe adventure.”
Because of my son’s choice, I understand better the noble ideals of the military profession, with its tradition of discipline and excellence. I know now that citizens like Jonathan put on those uniforms to serve our country, and not any particular political party or administration. The Fort Benning, Georgia, boot camp graduation hosted cars from nearly every state and people who looked, talked, ate, and believed very differently from me, but we enjoyed each other’s company and appreciated each other’s soldiers. We were family, together in those bleachers: We all loved somebody in uniform.
Like AWOL’s co-author Schaeffer, I find myself grateful to people I’ll never meet: other soldiers who do their jobs, risk their lives, and keep my son safe. I daily bless his Drill Sergeants, with their “Drop and do 100” (pushups) every time they saw him, and whatever magician-team developed that incredibly heavy Kevlar vest. (Yes, I tried it on; we have pictures.)
When Jonathan enlisted, my world trembled, but there began to grow in us all a bigger kind of faith as we pray that the fates are kind. He will come home a better man, go for even more schooling, have a family, and start a career that makes good use of his military experience. And the U.S. Army will benefit from officers as uniquely multi-cultural and “privileged” as my son.
I’ve come to see grown children as those Russian nesting dolls, complete at every stage, while larger versions hold all that came before. When Jonathan straps on his 40-pound ruck for an eight-mile stroll, there’s a shadow of him at eight, diving off the swim-meet starting block. His phone calls to Fort Riley echo the confidence and command demonstrated as senior class president. His intensity over Military Officer Association magazine resembles his little-guy fixation with Goodnight Moon.
I also muse over how we teach our children to think for themselves, and then wonder why they disagree with us. We surround them with things that we prize, and are puzzled when they prefer something else. We give them our values and ideals, dismayed when they search for their own instead.
On the practical level, I make certain that my packages to Iraq include sandalwood incense along with beef jerky and his beloved fantasy novels, because he asks for all of them. I appreciate how he lives with all that he is and continue to be excited to see all that he becomes because of it.
And I meditate an inordinate number of hours every day. It is my hope that this smooths any incoherent wrinkle in the field of consciousness that underlies my world and that of other mothers, whose sons grew up playing Jihad rather than Star Wars.
It takes a rare kind of courage to sleep near the Syrian border, and another kind of self-reliance just to emerge from a sheltering environment and embrace the unknown. Jonathan’s choice tests his inner strength (and ours), while embracing his path toward the future.