When Lauren Price’s youngest son went off to fight in Iraq in 2008, she handed him a going-away present few parents could offer.
"I gave him my Iraqi cell phone," said Price, 52, a Navy veteran from New Port Richey who served in the same region of Iraq where her son, Chad Maesse, was headed. "It still had minutes on it."
On this Veterans Day, more than 16 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the burden of fighting the continuing conflicts in the region is borne by a share of the population that grows smaller and smaller each year.
As it does, and as the cost rises to some 7,000 American lives and trillions of U.S. dollars, the profession of arms is becoming a family business.
Veterans are more than twice as likely as members of the general public to say they have a son or daughter who has served — 21 percent compared to 9 percent, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey. And most recruits have at least one family member who served, with about 30 percent reporting a veteran parent, according to a 2013 Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies survey.
Nearly 45 years after the draft ended at the close of the Vietnam War, less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the military. During the six years of World War II, the figure was 12 percent.
Families like the Prices don’t talk as much about the numbers as they do about individual responsibility.
Daughter of an Army and Marine drill sergeant, Price served 10 years. In addition to Chad, her two oldest children also served, as did her husband, Jim Price, 48, a retired Navy submariner, and his son, Ricky Noah Price, 22, who is still in the Navy.
"There were always family discussions about serving in the military," said Price, who medically retired in 2015. "The discussions were either you go to college, or you go to the military. My kids did not have the option of spending a year trying to find themselves."
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When it came time for Chad Maesse to decide about his future, he thought hard about his family’s past.
"As far back as I could remember, I wanted to be a soldier," said Maesse, 31, of Spring Hill.
His maternal grandfather, Henry Richard Frazier, served 33 years in the armed forces, seven as a Marine and the remainder with the Army.
"He was a huge influence," said Maesse, who finished his time in the military and now serves as principal of the Hudson branch of the Esther School, a private Christian institution that caters to children with special needs.
Another huge influence was his mother, who raised three children by herself in a tough neighborhood in Connecticut.
As he grew up, Maesse, 31, watched his oldest brother, Brad Frazier, 35, enlist in the Air Force in 1999 and serve four years. In the months before the jihadi attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the middle brother, Aaron Maesse, 33, joined the Army.
And in January 2005, his mom enlisted in the Navy. She was 39.
Late that year, it was time for 19-year-old Chad Maesse to hold up his right hand.
"After my mom raised three children pretty much on her own — and we were not easy kids — she still joined," Maesse said. "She made it all through boot camp, got a duty station and went overseas. She definitely inspired me to continue that family tradition. If I cut that off, it would have stopped a long family line of military service and I didn’t want to do that."
The family line almost crossed at one point.
In 2008, he shipped off to Iraq, right after his mom was there.
"It was really cool getting the phone. It was crazy to be in the same palaces of Saddam Hussein that my mother stayed in."
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Army Spc. Tylor Neil, 24, also grew up in a military family. His grandfather, David Neil, served in the Air Force at MacDill Air Force Base during the Cuban missile crisis. His uncle David was in the Navy. And his father, Scott Neil, became a legend in the Green Beret community.
Scott Neil was among the first troops in Afghanistan after 9/11, helping take the nation from the Taliban, and is a subject of Legion of Brothers, a CNN documentary on the invasion.
"Growing up, I followed my dad’s career and always had a strict interest in joining," said Tylor Neil, who is stationed at Fort Polk, La. "I was interested in going through the same trials and tribulations as he went through, and I have always been around that culture and lifestyle since I was a kid."
Neil’s military ambitions took a temporary back seat to sports after his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Kansas. But in 2011, he moved to Tampa to be with his father. The spark was rekindled.
"Before I moved to Tampa, I read about what my dad had done," Neil said. His father didn’t talk much about his combat experiences. "But when I moved to Tampa, the more I got involved with what he was doing, the more I was getting a situational awareness of how impactful he was to the special operations forces community internationally and nationally."
He joined at 23 in 2015 but didn’t tell his father until afterward.
"I went ahead and did it. We were having lunch and I told him this was what I was doing. He seemed a bit adverse."
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Parents sometimes have trepidations about their children following them into the military.
Unlike most Americans, they know firsthand the dangers and challenges of service and, for combat veterans, the horrors of war.
Lauren Price was stationed in Clearwater in 2005 when son Aaron was injured in Afghanistan by a rocket that exploded near his convoy.
"I was terrified until I was assured that his injuries were not life-threatening and I had a chance to speak to him," she said.
Scott Neil, 49, said he purposely avoided sharing too much with his son.
"Tylor didn’t really know the extent of what I was doing until he moved to Tampa .?.?. and saw photos of me in operations," Scott Neil said. "Tylor never knew that when you come home, you put it in a box and tuck it away. How do you tell a wife how many people you killed and captured and the horrors of war?"
For the Neils, another warrior dynamic was at play.
"I felt bad sometimes," the father said. "People would come up to me and shake my hand and say, ‘Oh my God, you are one of the best operators I know’ and my son would be there."
The competition didn’t worry his son.
"Dad was a direct action guy for the 5th Special Forces Group. I tend to enjoy more long-range surveillance, reconnaissance and intel gathering, analysis and the collection and interpretation of different dossier-type profiles. I have found my niche."
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Tim Nye took it hard when he heard that four members of the 3rd Special Forces Group were killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, Africa.
Nye is the father of a captain in that unit and a combat veteran who served with a man killed during the 1989 invasion of Panama.
"The very first thing that goes through your head, obviously, is, ‘Where is my son,’ if only for a nanosecond," Nye said.
Capt. Ryan Nye, 29, a graduate of Bloomingdale High School and West Point, wasn’t in Africa at the time. But he had been before and his father’s thoughts quickly turned from his son to the others in his unit.
Nye, like other veteran parents, said children who live the military lifestyle can become attracted to it.
"It comes down to comfort," he said. "There is a familiarity with service. You are born into it and you are not afraid of it. You see the benefits."
For parents, it’s a double-edged sword, said Nye, 60, a retired Army colonel now living in Virginia who last served at MacDill Air Force Base as spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command.
His son is back in harm’s way, serving somewhere in the Middle East.
"The advantage of having a generational soldier is that I know the horrors he is going to see, but I also know the caliber of people he is surrounded with," Nye said. "It is kind of cliche, but they are the best and the brightest this nation has to offer."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.