A woman once told me, after her life had taken an unexpected turn, that if you live long enough, pretty much anything can happen. That thought was in the back of my mind on a cool morning last November as I sat in the covered bleachers overlooking the wide expanses of Hilton Field parade grounds at Fort Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina. Across the field, about a thousand camo-clad soldiers marched in formation out of a pine forest, emerging from the green and white fog of detonated smoke grenades. They came toward us across the dead winter grass, in five companies, Alpha through Echo, to the wild whoops and cheers of the crowd and the strains of “Soldiers,” a rousing modern rock song with lyrics like “This is a perfect day to die” and “With our final breath, we will fight to the death—we are soldiers, we are soldiers.”
I was there not as a reporter but as a dad. Alongside me were my ex-wife, Jacqueline Wallace, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Harriet, all of us with tears in our eyes and our skin tingling, proud to bursting of our son and brother: Private John Henry Lomax, who would be formally graduating from Army boot camp the next day.
Military service is a tradition in many families, but not in mine, nor Jacqueline’s. No Lomax or Wallace had served in the armed forces since World War II. The general idea in our family was that the military was for other people, not for our son. I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. I grew up on war movies, played guns incessantly as a kid, and later, when at loose ends as a young adult, toyed with the idea of joining the Navy or even the French Foreign Legion, but I never followed through on those schemes. I was isolated from the military world: even in my thirties, I could count on one hand the number of my friends, acquaintances, and extended family members who had served.
As the 2nd Battalion of the 60th Infantry continued its advance across the parade grounds, I found that my mind went staggering back through the years, through all the phases of John Henry’s young life: the toddler whose fascination with dinosaurs morphed into an obsession with bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment, and the time we spent at the decrepit old observation tower at the Turning Basin Terminal of the Houston Ship Channel—there was always a construction site there he wanted to see. And the hours we spent at baseball practices or walking through the woods, splashing in the Frio and the Pedernales, tramping across the Real County hills and slogging through the Brazos bottomlands, scaring up deer, snakes, and the occasional twelve-foot alligator.
The five companies halted at attention. We were getting a crash course in Army life that weekend in South Carolina. It was a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump as our future commander in chief. Even with that uncertainty looming over the nation, and even as those smoke bombs burst from the treeline, and even as we were serenaded by a rock star roaring about the violent deaths of young Americans and all the alleged glory that entails, and even though somewhere out there in that sea of marching, camouflaged humanity was our firstborn, only son, it was one of the happiest moments of our lives.
In that moment, the previous summer seemed like nothing more than a distant nightmare involving other people. Back then, John Henry had been running out of time, patience, and hope. His days revolved around video games, junk food, surfing the net, dead-end jobs, and partying with his buddies. He’d split with his first post–high school girlfriend and was not in school, and only occasionally had he shown interest in re-enrolling. (He’d attended the University of Houston for a semester but told us at the time that his professors were boring. He steadfastly refused to share what was on his report card at semester’s end.)
Four secondhand cars had died on him. That included a Camry that needed an easy, cheap fix, which he put off until it metastasized into an engine-frying catastrophe. Most spectacularly, there was the twenty-year-old Honda two-door he and a buddy attempted to take on a hell-for-leather road trip from Houston to the Grand Canyon. It almost made it to Flagstaff. The boys got a bus home. The Honda still resides somewhere in the Arizona desert.
Jobs likewise came and went: stock clerk at Barnes & Noble, pizzeria waiter, Favor delivery driver, sack humper in a feed store, trainee dog groomer at a Petco. Occasionally he’d be on the cusp of advancement and bad fortune would strike. The pizzeria manager who’d taken a shine to him went on maternity leave, delaying John Henry’s management training until he lost interest. But other times he would suddenly quit, either out of boredom or perceived unfair treatment. Meanwhile, his rooms—at both the home I shared with my wife and at his mother’s house—crossed the line from disaster area to health code violations.
At last, my wife, Kelly Graml, and I, and his mom gave him an ultimatum: he would have to join the military; move to England (where his mom’s family is from) and go to work for his taskmaster uncle, who has a bouncy castle–party tent business; or else.
He refused to go to England. His British relatives were strangers to him, and he’d heard stories about his hard-ass uncle from his mom that made a drill sergeant seem preferable. But at first, he resisted the military too.
Which left us with “else.” But the thought of forcing our child onto the streets was horrific. Sure, he could couch-surf with his buddies for a while, but what then? Some friends of mine had made that same awful decision a couple of years ago, and their son became homeless, took up a life of petty crime, and went missing for weeks, until his stepfather and Texas EquuSearch found his remains underneath a downtown Houston bridge.
But what else could we do? Neither his mother nor my wife and I could have him under our roof for much longer. We also couldn’t afford to keep supplying him with cars, nor were we prepared to go six figures deep into debt to finance college for such a brazenly indifferent student.
We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.
Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.
We stood at that awful precipice for weeks, until one day John Henry announced he’d made up his mind: he’d join the military. This decision had been aided in part by the ministrations of a couple of his high school buddies currently in the Marines. We applauded his choice, and his mom and I immediately tried to steer him toward the Navy or Air Force. Especially the Air Force.
“Hey, John Henry, listen to this,” I said one night from behind my laptop. “The Navy navigates by the stars, the Army sleeps under the stars, but the Air Force counts the number of stars on their hotel!”
“The Air Force is for wusses, Dad. So is the Navy.” The Army it would be.
I read up on today’s Army on the internet and tried to interest him in the softest details I could find, but he didn’t want to be an Army journalist, drummer, or cook, or anything similarly candy-assed. He was determined to bushwhack his own trail through this jungle. I was terrified he would select infantry.
While the thought of what danger he might face on some foreign duty post was frightening, his first interactions with the Army were already having a positive effect on him. After his first visit to his recruiter, he could see some hope on the horizon. He was on a vector, a whole new world had opened up to him, and he was making his own plans, with little to no input from his mom or me. Through our shared Netflix account, I could see he was watching David Simon’s Generation Kill over and over again; the nonfiction miniseries about a Marine recon unit in the Iraq War is often lauded as one of the most realistic treatments of modern military life. He cut down on his aimless partying, and after each visit to his recruiter, he’d come home with fresh servings of military jargon and acronyms for us to decipher.
First you start hearing about MEPS, the military entry processing station. That is where recruits take their physical and their ASVAB, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and their score on that IQ test of sorts helps determine their AIT, advanced individual training, leading them to their MOS, military occupational specialty, or “job,” as we civilians call them.
After passing his physical and his drug test (whew!) and acing his ASVAB, John Henry announced that he had settled on the MOS 91 Bravo: wheeled vehicle mechanic. As a guy who was charitably given a C in a high school carpentry elective and has never even changed his own oil, I asked him why.
“I want to work with my hands.” He shrugged. And it’s true, he was good at things like taking apart his gaming consoles and computers, all of which he learned through YouTube tutorials with zero input from clueless Dad.
Then, on a hot day in late September, he walked into the handsome old post office building in downtown Houston at 701 San Jacinto Street—where a half century before both his grandfather and Muhammad Ali managed to avoid service in Vietnam—and did the most serious thing he’s ever done in his life. He took the oath of enlistment:
“I, John Henry Lomax, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
And at that moment, he was no longer under our control, nor was he his own man. He belonged to Uncle Sam. You might think it’s a bit like dropping your kid off at college, but in fact, it’s not like that in the slightest. You won’t be getting a phone call in a couple of days. You won’t wake up some Saturday morning to find a garbage bag full of dirty clothes in your laundry room and your kid sleeping one off in his or her old bedroom. And your child won’t be studying philosophy or English literature or any other academic pursuits. No, your child will be trained to give his or her life for our country.
Oath taken, John Henry loaded into a van to head to the airport. His mom, sister, and I met on the street outside the federal building. “Well, we did it,” Jacqueline said with a smile. “We did it,” I agreed, a tear in my eye.
I couldn’t help but think about the lyrics to his favorite song when he was about ten.
Ground Control to Major Tom—ten, nine, eight, seven, six . . .
Commencing countdown, engines on—five, four, three . . .
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you—two, one, liftoff.
For the next ten weeks, John Henry may as well have left the planet, save for the letters we exchanged and the very rare phone calls he was allowed.
To find out what might be going on in our son’s life, Jacqueline and I sought various third parties with military experience. Since my mid-thirties, my network of friends had expanded to include a few more military folks, both ex and active, and I reached out to a few of them for information. One of my correspondents was Shawn Reese, a veteran I met through a mutual friend on Facebook. Reese is an Army success story. Twenty-five years ago, he was a beered-up, skirt-chasing Tennessee college dropout turned Army private. Upon Reese’s flunking out, his Alabama-bred Vietnam vet dad—Reese family members had fought in nearly all of America’s wars since the Revolution—made his decision to enlist simple. “It was either that or I could die by his hands,” he jokes.
His ten years in the Green Machine included several “real-world deployments,” as he puts it. He has since acquired three degrees, including two master’s, one in international relations from St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, and the other in national security policy from the National War College, in Washington, D.C. Today, Reese lives on Capitol Hill and works as a security analyst for the Congressional Research Service. For all his adult life, he has either lived or studied the military, and a neophyte military dad could find no wiser sage. Eventually I would visit his cavelike basement flat, in D.C., and we would talk for hours about what he had lived and what John Henry could expect.
“Comfort is relative,” Reese said one night. “If you are wet and cold, then it’s fantastic to be dry and cold. If you’re sweaty and hot and standing in a desert somewhere, suddenly the greatest thing in the world is being in shade. And that is not something you can comprehend unless you have a profession that makes you go to shitty places with shitty terrain and a shitty climate and then do shitty, stressful things. And the only way you can keep yourself sane and able to function without becoming a complete and utter animal—and don’t get me wrong, part of you does become an animal—you just have to laugh and say, ‘There ain’t a damn thing I can do about this, so I might as well just accept it for what it is.’ Life is shitty. It’s even shittier in the Army. Embrace the Suck.”
That is one of Reese’s favorite sayings, and when I ran it past John Henry via text, he sent the following reply: “Lol yea I’m already pretty familiar with that mantra.”
That John Henry could already relate to that jibes with another of Reese’s credos: “Privates are always privates.” He said his grandfather’s World War I diary could have been written by someone serving during Vietnam or Desert Storm. The basics of military life haven’t changed over the decades. “The only thing that has changed is the technology: we didn’t have cellphones, we didn’t have some of the things that soldiers now have in their barracks,” Reese said. “But as late as 2001, when I was a company commander in the Army, soldiers were still the same. They were Joes. Male or female, they were Joes.”
The military is one of the last great leveling forces in America today, he said. At its most basic level, the Army takes in people from every background—the farm, the streets, small towns, and increasingly from the pinched urban middle class—and turns them all into one thing: a private. “I’m not saying the military is perfect at this, but the military has a long experience in taking people from different groups and putting them together and making them be a part of the Big Green Suck,” he said. “The Green Machine. It rolls on, and you are just part of it. And it sucks, the military sucks, the Army sucks, but it’s the greatest job in the world.”
John Henry was already telling us similar things during the rushed five-minute phone calls he occasionally placed to us from boot camp under the watchful eye of a sergeant. He told us he was doing fine, but that PT (physical training) was really hard, and he was never not worried about flunking one of the tests, which would either set him back weeks or cause him to have to leave the Army.
At last he vaulted the final hurdle, and we could rest assured that he had completed boot camp, unlike about 15 percent of the platoon mates he’d started with. And there we were at Hilton Field on Fort Jackson, and there he was, amid a sea of young soldiers, now subservient to something much larger than his own will.
When the marching stopped, we loved ones descended from the stands and reunited with our kids—or at least tried to. This proved a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. By design, all the privates look alike, their hair shaved or tucked into their snappy blue berets, and they were under orders not to break ranks until their families found them. A mildly crazed scrum of parents seeking their soldiers was the result, and it took the three of us at least two minutes to find John Henry.
And Private John Henry Lomax was not the same rail-thin kid who had left Houston ten weeks before. This young man stood tall and had a barrel chest and square, athletic shoulders. The tears came welling up from my chest and out of my eyes as I hugged this chiseled specimen who called me Dad.
This young man in camo had a voice that rumbled with confidence. He had a been-there-done-that look in his eye. For the first time in many years, he walked as if he had a direction to go in. He leaned forward, swung his elbows, swaggered like a bulldog.
Following the ceremony, we got to spend some time with him. Once in the rental car, he spoke freely. He asked me to buy him some vape cartridges and, over his mom’s objections and my own judgment, I complied. The kid was a soldier now. And behind billows of odorless smoke, he started to unburden himself. He likened his training to a combo of “fat camp and prison.” Some of his drill instructors, he believed, showed tics and other traits he associated with PTSD they had picked up in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he no longer wanted to settle for being a wheeled-vehicle mechanic: he now wanted to be an airborne wheeled-vehicle mechanic, or maybe even study to be a Hurt Locker–style bomb-disposal soldier, a prospect that mortified me, though I said nothing. He also spoke, confidently, of studying to become a sergeant within a few years—this from a young man who a few months before could scarcely plan ahead more than a couple of days.
He still didn’t have a carved-in-stone plan. But he had something better: options, and even more important, a path to achieve them and the confidence to get it done.
His mom and I had never heard such talk from him before. The kid who’d left our backhouse and a spare room at his mom’s as disaster zones a few weeks before was now mocking those he felt had “Nooooo discipline”: a driver whose car had expired tags and a rusted-out body, for example. Who was this young man in the crisp uniform, who kept his bed made tight enough to bounce a dime?
The second day of graduation weekend found us treated to a surprisingly rousing and even funky performance from an Army brass band, a citizenship ceremony for a hundred or so immigrant soldiers turned newly minted Americans, and a gung-ho colonel’s speech punctuated by many a “Hoo-ah!” The five companies, this time clad in dress blues, recited in unison the Soldier’s Creed:
I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills. I always maintain my arms, my equipment, and myself. I am an expert and I am a professional. I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.
And that was that. John Henry Lomax was no longer an SIT, soldier in training, but an honest-to-God soldier.
After the ceremony, his mom and Harriet went back to Houston. I had the privilege of driving him to his next assignment, at Fort Lee, in Petersburg, Virginia.
The first thing he wanted to do was absolutely dominate the music in the car. He’d been deprived of his tunes since he’d enlisted. (The only music he’d heard throughout boot camp came on bus rides to marching grounds.) He played Z-Ro’s Houston anthem “Mo City Don.” And then James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo,” a song we always played en route to family vacations.
Stuck in Columbia traffic, the elation of liberty eroded by hunger pangs, we pulled off into a Waffle House, where he consumed a sampler of virtually the entire menu, the first of several such repasts. After many tedious miles of Dix-ie Low Country, and another Waffle House feast in Virginia, my soldier was ready for bed in the extended-stay hotel I’d booked on the edge of Petersburg. He asked for a six-pack of beer, and I granted his request. (Again, though barely underage, my son was a soldier, not a minor.) He slammed a couple of beers, dropped to the floor of the hotel, banged out fifty push-ups, his dog tags swinging around his neck, hopped in bed, and passed out by nine, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
The next morning, he got up, drank another of his beers, jumped into his camo, and announced his readiness for breakfast. I took him to the Denny’s across the highway from the hotel. While he was ordering, a cigarette-fragrant older couple came in, the man looking a lot like Kenny Rogers with his white beard and silver mane, the woman trailing meekly behind in her Virginia Tech T-shirt. They looked at John Henry in uniform.
“Thank you for your service, young man,” the man said. “Back in my day, nobody ever said that to me.”
“That’s the first time that’s happened to me,” John Henry said, after they’d sat down to their breakfast. I asked him how it felt. “Weird,” he said. (He would later tell me he got standing ovations on airplanes and elsewhere in public. He was not a rock star, and he hated it.)
After his consumption of much of the Denny’s menu, we did a quick driving tour of woebegone Petersburg and then headed out to the Civil War battlefield on the edge of town.
Most famous now through its portrayal in the horrific opening scenes of the film Cold Mountain, Petersburg was the site of the infamous “Crater” debacle, wherein Yankee combat engineers spent months undermining and then planting a bomb under an entrenched Rebel stronghold. Once the bomb was detonated, as we learned while watching the National Park Service’s documentary at the visitors center, white, black, and Native American Union soldiers rushed in, hoping that the tide of the long siege had turned. Instead, according to the film, graycoats crawled out of their trenches and surrounded the newly created blast site and mowed Union troops down by the hundreds. Things got so horrible in that cauldron of death, white Yankee soldiers started bayoneting their black fellow combatants to signal to the Confederates that they were worthy of being taken prisoner instead of slaughtered. Meanwhile, the Chippewa bluecoats who were torn by mortal wounds were admired by all who saw them for crawling off under the nearest tree to sing traditional death songs until they died.
And here we were, an American soldier and his dad taking the horrors in. “Those Indians were badasses,” John Henry said. “And I can’t believe how horrible all that was.”
It all left me feeling a little numb. Surely he wouldn’t face anything like that, I told myself. After all, modern warfare was seldom so compact, and full-frontal assaults have been obsolete since the advent of the machine gun, right? And his MOS was more or less rear echelon. But then there was his talk of airborne school and bomb disposal.
A picture I took of him that day in his camo, standing in the sandbag-lined trench that led into the Yankee tunnels, and that by a trick of the light appears almost sepia-toned, fills me with a mixture of dread, pride, and regret. Privates are always privates, and war is always war.
I say regret, because I have not served, and now, with middle age upon me, never will. Right before my eyes, the little boy I had known was becoming a man I could never know.
“My dad and I never had any real conversations till I returned from [combat],” Reese told me. “There was something about our mutual service that connected us. Your son will be different the next time you see him.”
And he was. And he was a little more different a few months later, when he graduated from his advanced training, and he will be more different still, Reese assured me, after he goes to his first duty station, and even more so should he deploy.
Back in Virginia, time was ticking away until he had to report. We arrived at the base, and I handed him over once again to Uncle Sam, at Fort Lee’s U.S. Army Ordnance School. A young soldier he’d trained with at Fort Jackson was there to meet him. “ ’Sup, Lo,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
“Love you, son,” I said, as the two of them marched off together. “Keep on making me proud.”