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Once a kid, soon to be a Marine

There's this kid I know who moved onto our street when he was a little boy. He had skinny arms, a high-pitched voice, glasses and an easy smile.

He was a staple on my front steps and in my driveway and basement, alternating between playing and fighting with my son. Their video game battles and street hockey games would go on for hours, but the fights never lasted long. He was the older brother my son always wishes he had.

He moved off the street about a year ago. My son sees him in school but misses the fun they used to have together, just hanging out and being boys. I miss it, too.

I saw this kid the other night, only he's not a kid anymore. His smile still comes easy, but now he has a deep voice, a broad chest and a muscular frame. It was probably the last time I'll see him and talk with him for a long time. Early next year, he plans to enter the Marine Corps.

When I saw his mother and his grandmother that night and told them how great he looked, I asked both of them how they felt about his decision. If it's possible to smile and look proud and grimace and look terrified, all at the same time, they both did it.

Is anything more difficult as a parent than knowing that your child is leaving to join the military, especially when the nation is at war? You appreciate their courage at deciding to serve their country, but some part of you has to wish that they could hold on to their childhood for a little longer, get a college degree and then a nice, safe job behind a desk where their biggest fear would be downsizing.

Seeing him that night, I couldn't help but think we devote our lives to trying to keep our sons and daughters safe, but when they make the adult decision to become a member of the U.S. military, they willingly put themselves in harm's way.

I've been to a couple of high school graduations in the last three years. After each graduate's name is called, the speaker announces what that person plans to do after high school. Most of the students are on their way to college, and the audience oohs and aahs when the institution of higher learning is one of the heavy hitters, like Cornell or Notre Dame.

But when the speaker says the graduate is joining one of the armed services, the audience erupts in even louder cheers.

Each time it happens, I find myself getting more choked up at the idea that a kid as young as 17 would be mature enough to make such an enormous commitment. I guess that's the patriotic American in me. But the worried father in me wants to rush the stage, grab the kid by the shoulders and say, "Are you sure?"

The decision to join the military evokes a range of emotions from anyone even peripherally connected to it. That's why the tear-jerker videos showing soldiers returning home from war get so many hits on websites and such prominent play on television news programs. Happily, we're being treated to countless such reunions that are doubly touching because, for the first time in years in some cases, families are together for the holidays again.

But I find myself thinking of the families who are celebrating this joyous season with a tinge of sadness because they know that they will soon be saying goodbye to their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters, their mothers and fathers, not knowing what their future holds and dreaming of the day they get to experience one of those reunions.

One of those people saying goodbye will be a young man I know who was a skinny kid yesterday.

Semper fi, Michael. I'll see you on my front steps again soon.


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