We had just celebrated New Years. I was excited to say goodbye to 2018, a year of being pregnant and recovering from being pregnant. I had spent most of the year feeling my worst, but trying my best to be more active.
And here I was, bright and early on the second day of 2019, starting out on a road trip to Parris Island, South Carolina. Amazing!
“This is going to be a great year!” I thought to myself as I watched the scenery go by, as we crossed the border of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and then South Carolina. I was happy as the temperatures got noticeably warmer. I remained optimistic even when the southern humidity turned my hair into a frizzy puff ball.
I was with Chris and our oldest daughter, Areli (19 years old) and our youngest daughter Aria (4 months old) driving down to attend the Marine Graduation of our firstborn son, Cole. We were also traveling with Cole’s girlfriend, Amy and her mom, Valarie. We were making good time even with nursing Aria every 3-4 hours. We were close to our rental home, but we had to stop for supper. We found a local diner with southern comfort food. No bright and fresh vegetables, but plenty of the fried variety. It felt almost too stereotypical to be true: the friendly waitress with the charming southern drawl giving directions to the toothless gentleman, “Turn at the big tree, past the single-wide, to the double-wide where my mama lives.”
The next morning we awoke early, but we could hardly sleep anyway. It was the day that we would see our Marine for the first time in three months. I had to rise at 4:30 to get myself ready and feed the baby. Even though we got on the base at 6:30, we realized that we were a bit late, and the parking lot was almost full. We hurried out to try and find a good spot along the street. At 7:00am the Motivational Run would start, and we wanted to catch a glimpse of Cole as he ran past.
We could see the famous sign over the Blvd de France that said, “WE MAKE MARINES” and our excitement mounted! Soon we heard something but couldn’t see anything. Was it recruits doing PT? Or was it our Marines getting closer? First to come marching down the street was a small band that Areli nicknamed, “The Side Band.” A lively and talented group of brass musician and drummers danced and marched and interacted with the crowd.
I learned later that they were all master musicians who joined the Marines just to be in their band. Soon we heard a military cadence being called out by hundreds of young Marines.
We could hardly contain our excitement at this point. Camera and phones were out. We watched the guidons carefully. First the lead platoons would pass…1000…1001…
There was 1002! Cole’s Platoon. I strained my eyes. Then in the middle of all the green and shaved heads…I think….I see…
“There’s Cole! Cole!!!! Yeah!!!! I see him!” I yelled like a crazy person. I saw Cole’s head perk up ever so slightly and in his eyes was a look of recognition. He was not allowed to break formation in any way, but he had seen us!
The others couldn’t spot him, so we waited until they all ran past again. This time everyone could see him, strong and proud, running like it was no big deal. When “The Side Band” passed us again we realized something. We didn’t know where to go or what to do next. By the time we followed the crowds of people who were congregating across the street, we were at the back of the line. We found out that it was the line to get into the All-Weather Training Facility were the Liberty Ceremony would be held…in two hours!
The security was very strict so it took a long time to get into the building. We couldn’t all find seats. Areli, Amy, and I squeezed into the tight bleachers. Chris just stood in the back with the baby. I had to exit to use the restrooms (which we soon realized, were not one of the top priorities of the Parris Island hospitality committee). When I returned, the doors were being closed because all the seats were full, still an hour before the ceremony.
I knew that Family Day and was a big deal, but I didn’t realize how BIG it was!
Family and friends had traveled to be here. Whether alone or in groups of up to 30, they came from all over the world to see their beloved receive one of the highest honors; the title of United States Marine.
Time ticked on as we watched Marine promotional videos. Finally a Marine in charge told Chris he could take Aria and sit in the front row, in a handicap spot that hadn’t been filled. I joined him. It was amazing that God worked that out for us! Next to us was sitting the wife and three young children of one of Cole’s DIs. Again, I was amazed. DIs have wives? They have adorable little children?! I prayed that Aria would be a good little baby and not go into one of her crying fits during the ceremony.
Right on time one of the large doors was opened. A single Marine sang out a Cadence as the DIs and Platoons marched in perfect formation. Platoon 1002 stopped right in front of us, but I couldn’t see Cole.
The talking seemed to last forever. Finally Liberty was announced and the room erupted into chaos. It took a while for Cole to find us. He looked so good, confident and strong. I hugged him and couldn’t speak for the lump in my throat.
We spent the next 4 hours and 45 minutes walking around the base, talking, asking questions, eating, shopping, and taking in the museum. There was so much we wanted to know and so little time. Cole seemed relaxed and happy to answer our questions.
He told us stories that made us laugh and stories that made us wonder in amazement.
He had made it through! He was still alive and still human, but now more mature, wiser. He could joke about his suffering and smile and greet other new Marines.
Marines are always early, so Cole made sure he was back at the Parade Deck well before Liberty was over. I nursed the baby in the van while the others watched the Graduation Practice. We spent the rest of our day relaxing at our rental home. We enjoyed the porch and the beautiful view. South Carolina really is lovely, if you don’t mind all the frizzy hair.
We decided that we absolutely HAD to get on the base earlier for Graduation Day. When Aria woke me up at 3:30 am the next morning, there was no point in going back to sleep. But it was worth it! We got on the base by 5:30 and Areli and Amy began to wait in line. The rest of us waited in the van with the sleeping baby. After a while Valarie and Chris got out to wait in line as well. At 7:30 they were finally opening the security check points and allowing people into the bleachers. Still, the ceremony didn’t start until 9, so I thought I would let the baby sleep. I nursed her in the van around 8 and Chris called me saying, “Get in here as soon as you can. We are trying to save you a seat but they keep telling us to move closer together to make more room. It is filling up fast.”
I grabbed the diaper bag, my purse, and the baby and walked to the closest metal detector. By this time the line was very short, and Aria and I got to our seats in no time. Wow, there were a lot of people! And packed in so close together, you felt like you were sitting in your neighbor’s lap. It was a friendly crowd, and I began to talk with the ladies in front of me. One had come from New York to see her nephew graduate. Another had come with 20 other family members from Georgia to see her grandson. We talked about boot camp, our hopes and our fears, and the goodness of God. Tears were coming already and the ceremony hadn’t even started yet! The overflow bleachers were filling up and people who didn’t get a seat were standing.
I looked out at the crowd and was struck by the amount of love it represented.
I thought about the mother originally from South Africa who traveled with her daughter and grandson. I remembered the woman in front of me in line explaining how she didn’t sleep a wink during the crucible. She had stayed up with her candles lit, praying for her great-grandson. I recalled the sweet young girlfriend from Michigan, alive with giddy excitement at the Liberty Ceremony. Brothers and sisters holding banners at the Motto Run, women running and embracing their Marines at Liberty, and family members decked out in matching shirts filled my mind. Now I was surveying the thousands lining the Parade Deck who had taken time off of work and gladly paid the expense to be here. What love!
I was so glad that I was here!
Part of the thousands,
part of the love,
part of this little piece of Parris Island history,
part of this huge piece of MY SON’S history.
The ceremony was very impressive, full of military marching and orders. (I don’t have a military background so please forgive my rudimentary and perhaps inaccurate descriptions.) First came the “Main Band” we called it, not to be confused with the “Side Band.” To watch them march with their instruments was rather like watching close order drills done with slide trombones rather than rifles. There was the parade master, a woman with an incredible voice that could be heard from one end of the Parade Deck to the other. There were many commanding officers and two generals. The mascot of the Marines, a cute bulldog, made an appearance. When the platoons came marching in, their skill was amazing! We caught a glimpse of Cole!
There were orders called out, awards given, accolades received, and cannons fired! I had two favorite moments of the ceremony.
First was when I watched my son’s platoon all take a stance in perfect unison, bringing their heels together with one thunderous clap. Second was when a commanding officer said, “Good Morning!” and over 600 Marines answered him with one voice that seemed to shake the earth.
Finally each platoon was given the order to go on leave and Cole was free! Free for 10 days! We gave hugs and congratulations. We took pictures. We were bursting with pride!
We met some of Cole’s friends. We picked up the last of his bags and saw his squad bay. Cole was anxious to get off of the base and start his leave. We all had so much to talk about, so many things to do with him, and so many favorite foods to prepare! But for the moment, we seemed a bit dazed. It felt like a dream; the culmination of over a year of praying, preparing, and training.
Our son had truly earned the title: