CUMBERLAND — My wife and I are now squared away as an Army family. We had the honor this fall of attending our son’s “Turning Blue” and graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., as he officially persevered in that iconic hardship test called boot camp.

Our son’s enlistment in the infantry was not an event we’d foreseen. From shaggy-haired rock ’n’ roller to college graduate to a for-real “boots on the ground grunt”? Wasn’t even on our radar screen.

Did we have any disquiet sending him off to boot camp? You bet.

But week after week, his letters home revealed fulfillment and exhilaration. Long, hand-written missives with “Kilroy was here” drawings of the rappelling towers or the proper body position for handling a 50-caliber machine gun. He gave us detailed descriptions of land-navigation techniques in the dark of night, of toting a 65-pound pack for miles on end in the middle of Georgia’s hot and humid summer.

He also gave us laughs – after winning the “Top Shot” award as best marksman among some 200 other soldiers, his reward was a milkshake and a terse dismissal from his drill sergeant: “Go gloat someplace else.”

Meanwhile, Su and I continued to ask: Are you still liking it? Is it for you?

His reply was unwavering: I’m all in.

For Su and me, the notion of being Army was crystallized at the Turning Blue and graduation ceremonies at Fort Benning. From the start – a family debriefing on the base – the Army made it clear that each and every family was a critical, valued part of this special community.

I’ve been to my share of civilian dog-and-pony shows, but this was the genuine article. The officers were funny, informative, understanding. They half-jokingly warned the moms about the first hug – “He might seem a little stiff after having a drill sergeant in his face all this time.”

After the debriefing, we walked to a huge, paved lot graced by a large grandstand – the low whump of artillery drills echoing in the distance. This was a fort – where former civilians are chiseled into the best-trained fighters in the world.

After a few short-and-sweet speeches, the tight, precise formations of new soldiers broke ranks and parents looped the infantryman’s blue cords on their son’s epaulets. Hugs, proud smiles and tighter hugs.

And then, until exactly eighteen-hundred hours, we re-took possession of our kid.

Kev’s first official duty as an infantryman was to dispatch several of the homemade whoopie pies my wife had – under strict orders – brought down from Maine.

Back at the hotel we interrogated this new soldier, now fluent in military acronyms, jargon and customs.

To wit: When new recruits arrive at Fort Benning, there is no football-style band. Recruits step off the bus to a “shark attack” – a cadre of drill sergeants who swarm and vociferously inform them that they are indeed in the Army now.

That old movie image of stepping forward for extra duty? Well, you don’t volunteer … you are “voluntold.”

Bad weather? In the Army, “If it isn’t raining, it isn’t training.”

Meals are one of the few comforts for a boot-camp soldier. Kev’s favorite MREs were Nos. 4, 8, 11 and 13. But to sate a sweet tooth, some soldier somewhere created the “Ranger doughnut” – a slice of white bread, folded in half, with a slather of butter and sugar. OK, it’s not a Krispy Kreme. But if you’re bivouacking in the rain in the Georgia backwoods with finely honed drill sergeants who might stage a flash-bang raid at 3 a.m., then yes, it’s a doughnut.

And for a picker-upper, there’s “Ranger dip” – instant coffee balled in a wad of toilet paper that gets tucked under a lip. Not a $5 latte, but it works.

In all, Su and I had two short days at Fort Benning. We got to meet several of our son’s tight buddies. Each was unstintingly polite, smart and smiling. In contrast, civilians of the same age seemed … well, unkempt and self-centered.

As I write, Kevin’s moved on to Airborne training. As you read this, he may be dropping from a 20-story training tower or jumping from the back of a C-130 Hercules or C-17 Globemaster.

Someday it may be a real “insertion” – boots touching down on foreign, hostile ground. As military parents, that “someday” thought is like a mental rucksack to heft every day.

We are, as a family, in the Army now.

— Special to the Press Herald

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