Military Mom in Military USA: What It Was Like When My Son Joined the Army

The Army isn’t something I would’ve expected for my son straight out of high school. He had mused about military school at one point, but that idea eventually faded and I thought he’d settle on something else. His junior year was rudely interrupted by COVD-19 shutting everything down, and the world was a different place as he entered his senior year. I’m not entirely sure where the final impetus came for him, but I do know that when he approached me with his decision that fall, he knew what he wanted to do, he had a plan, and he was taking every initiative to make it happen.

Some of the questions I get most often when I tell people my son joined the Army include:

How are you doing?

What made him decide to join?

How do you feel about that?

And I answer:

I’m doing pretty good. The hardest part was not being able to contact him during boot camp.

I’m not entirely sure, but he knew what he wanted to do and I could support him in that or not—and I chose to support him. He had a specific job he wanted to sign up for that he knew would give him skills to do what he wanted beyond the Army—and it was a great way to get paid to do it, too.

I’m super proud and really excited for him. He’s taken initiative every step of the way and I couldn’t be happier.

Now here are some things I don’t hear people asking about that I think are just as important to know—especially if your own child is considering joining the military.

Enlisting as a Future Soldier

Chances are your high schooler has seen recruiters set up at their high school at some point, much like you’d see a college recruiter. Your high school senior can enlist in the military before they turn 18 or even graduate. This is what my son opted for. He knew which position he wanted to sign up for—every soldier must select a job to sign up for. My son wanted to be a wheeled vehicle mechanic and received a monetary incentive for enlisting early.

Another note—just because your child is enlisting, that doesn’t mean they get out of testing. They may not need to take the SAT (although it can still be a good idea), but they will need to take the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) exam. This test will help determine which jobs they’re eligible to sign up for. The higher the score, the more job opportunities there are for them.

Additionally, since my son enlisted before he graduated and turned 18, parental signatures were required. So no need to worry about your child going off and enlisting without your knowledge!

Preparing for Basic Training—And Saying Goodbye

When your child enlists early, they’re going to know when their boot camp start date is right away, which is super helpful for knowing how long you have for your maternal meltdown. There are some rules about how early after high school graduation they can start, so you’ll have time to celebrate and spend some time together before they ship off.

The bulk of your child’s preparation is going to be on their shoulders. Their recruitment officer is going to be their best friend during lead-up time. I did meet with my son’s recruiter before he officially enlisted, which gave me the opportunity to ask as many questions as I could think of. It helped to be able to do this, but much like when your recent graduate goes off to college, this isn’t the time to be a helicopter parent. The bulk of responsibility to fulfill any requirements (like paperwork, attending any meetings, etc.) falls on your child’s shoulders. You don’t want to be the mom embarrassing your future soldier before they’ve even left for basic. I was really lucky to have a son who very much stayed on top of everything he needed to do. There were some times when I felt like I only had a vague idea of what was to come as a result, but I accepted that as part of the letting go process as well.

Their recruiter will help them with quite a lot of the prep before leaving for basic, especially with what they can and can’t bring with them. (They can’t bring much of anything, really.) One thing they can bring with them is simple materials for writing letters—so be sure to send them with envelopes, paper, and plenty of stamps for sending letters home.

They’ll also need to make sure they have things like bank accounts, etc., set up before they go. And if there are any memberships, car payments, or any other adulting responsibilities to consider, they’ll have no access to take care of these things during boot camp—so make sure they’re fully prepared for any and all of these things before they go.

The biggest thing I regret not pushing harder for before my son left was insisting that he thoroughly clean up his room beforehand (ha!). As the days and weeks went by he ended up with very little time to sort through his things. Which left me to do the bulk of packing stuff away after he left (still working on that!). Your child will likely have limited visits home after they leave for boot camp and go on to their first assignment, and you won’t want to spend that precious time with them cleaning their room.

In the final weeks leading to boot camp, I made it a priority to ensure we had some quality time together as a family. Be sure to talk to your child about this in advance. They’ll have their own ideas of how they want to spend their last days of freedom visiting friends, too. We took a short family trip with my other kids—a last hurrah, if you will. We also celebrated his birthday early, since he’d actually turn 18 in the middle of boot camp. And we had a going away party for him, too. It was an easy way to invite friends and family to send him off all at once rather than try to make time to see everyone individually before he left.

Staying in Contact

As I mentioned above, not being able to have regular contact with my son right off the bat was probably one of the hardest parts of my experience so far. Basic training lasts for about ten weeks, and other than a very brief scripted call to say that he’d made it, I didn’t get to hear Skyler’s voice for the first couple of weeks. He was able to send me his mailing address and I sent him letters as much as I could (and encouraged family members to as well). I was absolutely thrilled when I received my first letter from him. Your soldier-to-be will be going through one of the biggest challenges of their life, so hearing from home is a crucial part of keeping their morale high during boot camp.

My son was eventually allowed to have about one weekly phone call. They tended to come on Sunday afternoons for his particular platoon, and there were some weeks when they didn’t happen. He was allowed to call from his personal cell phone but only had about an hour for any calls he wanted to make. Case in point, make sure your phone is set to let your child’s calls come through!

After basic training, your soldier will have regular access to their phone, and keeping in touch will be much easier. If your soldier is stationed overseas, you’ll also want to make a plan for staying in touch. Rather than signing up for an international cell phone plan, it’s often more economical for them to unlock their phone with the provider and get a local SIM card. My son is currently stationed in Korea and I stay in touch with him primarily through Instagram messages—and we do video calls through it, too. If you’re Apple users, then they should still be able to use iMessage to stay in touch, and other messaging apps like WhatsApp are an option, too. I wasn’t a big fan of creating an account on another app just for this though.

Parent Resources

The resource that helped me most on my journey was Facebook groups and pages. There are specific ones for each basic training location/battalion, so once you have that info, look for the page specific to your child’s location—stat. Not only are the admins great at keeping families up to date on what’s going on during boot camp, but there are also seasoned families in there who are super great at answering family questions. There’s no email newsletter to sign up for when your child goes off to training, and it can be challenging to find information online—joining the group was a lifesaver for me!

There’s a lot of Lingo

Your soldier has been immersed in a whole new world that comes with its accompanying language. You can definitely attempt to learn all the new words and phrases that come your way, but don’t hesitate to ask your soldier what something means (or go to Google—or the family Facebook group!—to ask).

Attending Basic Training Graduation

Once your child nears the end of boot camp, you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether they’ll be graduating or not. There’s always the chance that they could get injured and/or “recycled” into a different training session, but it’s best to plan ahead for graduation. The pandemic changed things, but I was fortunate that the Army was back to allowing families to attend graduation in person.

Again, the Facebook group was my best resource for getting any and all information about attending graduation. And it actually included two days: Family Day and Graduation Day. If you’re not already familiar with military life (and bases), then it’ll definitely feel like entering a foreign country. Here are my best tips for traveling to and attending graduation and family days:

  • Book your hotel in advance. There are likely limited (if any) hotels on base, so if you’re hoping to stay on base you need to book them, stat. I opted for Airbnbs which meant I had to travel on and off base.
  • Make sure you have any identification and proof of vaccination required—and that they’re up to date. This goes for car registration, too. If you don’t have the required documentation you won’t be allowed on base.
  • Know the schedule in advance—and plan on getting there early. The bases are processing a lot of people through the gates on family days especially, so give yourself a good two-hour buffer before any ceremony start times. You may have to make it through a line of cars to get on base or to the ceremony location on base.
  • Research the base before you go. Your soldier won’t be allowed off base with you on family days and they won’t be familiar with all of the amenities on base. (They’ve been immersed in boot camp.) So do your homework in advance on what there is to do. (The base my son was on had several parks, a museum, and even a pool.) You’ll have a lot of time to spend together on these days and you’ll want to fill up that time with at least a little bit of fun. And probably shopping for things your soldier needs, too.
  • Bring snacks. There will likely be a number of restaurants to choose from on base, but everyone and their mom (literally) will be trying to go to the same restaurants. So expect there to be lines. Snacks help. Or even bring meals from off base. Your soldier will be expected to be with someone at all times, so if you’re going with other family members, have them leave base to pick up lunch.

mother standing with son at Army basic training graduationTo sum things up, it’s a whole new world when your child enters the military. It can take some time to get acclimated to having less contact with them when they start off at basic training, but you’ll soon see your soldier in a new light when they emerge. They’ll need your support from afar now more than ever. I talk regularly with my son and feel like we actually talk about more things now that he’s halfway across the world. He definitely misses friends and family, and the familiarities of home, but I couldn’t be prouder of my son and I’m excited for him as he continues his journey as a soldier.

Amy Lynn is a divorced mama of four kids and dog mom to two. She’s lived in San Antonio for over 20 years and has a degree in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Previously a program director at a local literary arts nonprofit, she began blogging as a creative outlet when she became a stay-at-home mom. Now a digital media consultant and writer, Amy is the founder of The Dog Guide and The Dog Guide San Antonio. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: Hays Street Bridge Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Cascarones