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When children enlist, parental support matters

Sheila Pressley stood in the kitchen preparing dinner when her son, Donta Walker, approached her with a question.

When the King High senior said, "Now mom, hear me out," she knew to expect something more than a request for lunch money.

"He's always leery about how I'm going to react," Pressley explained. "So I said, 'Okay, what is it?' And he said, "I'm going to enlist in the military."

Similar scenes have occurred all over Hillsborough County this spring with graduating seniors opting to serve their country. An adventurous excitement typically underscores the enlistee's perspective, and the teenager's sense of invincibility often negates the life or death factors.

Yet for parents well aware we're a nation at war, the announcement can be chilling. Pressley's parental protection instincts kicked in, as they would with many moms and dads. She immediately began to worry.

Donta, who signed to enter the Air Force in February, knew what to expect and came equipped with answers.

"He had done a lot of research," Pressley said. "To my surprise, he had been on the Internet, too, and gone to different military channels. He had spent a lot of time finding out about what's going on."

After four years in King High's Naval Junior ROTC, Donta, 17, said he had developed a sense of the pros and cons of military service. He also knew his mother would be concerned about his well-being if he ended up in combat.

"I had to just break it down to her because that's a lot of people's viewpoint of the military, 'Oh you're going to die,' " Donta said. "I had to get that common stereotype out of her head."

Pressley also got advice from the customers she deals with as an employee at USAA Insurance, which primarily serves military families. She sought reassurances and received them from nearly everyone she talked to.

"Now I back him, and I'm proud of him," Pressley said.

It was a different situation for Teresa Sheppard, a 17-year-old King High senior. She already belongs to a military family. Her mother was in the Air Force. Her father was in the Army, and her brother attended West Point. Both her brother and cousin served in the Middle East.

Consequently, the advice she received centered more on what branch of the military might best fit her skills and less on the fear of combat.

"My brother took two tours to Afghanistan, and my cousin has been in Afghanistan," Teresa said when asked about fears her parents may have had. "Seeing them go there and come back kind of helped.

"I just try to keep my mind open and have hope that everything we do will go well."

Spoto High senior Nikeya Alexander sits at the other end of the spectrum. No one in her family has served in the military, but she's no less excited about her decision to join the Army National Guard. She has already started her once-a-month weekend training and says she has found a new family among her fellow soldiers.

As for combat, she likely won't end up on a battlefield, but wouldn't mind if she got called into action.

"It's two different worlds, the civilian world and the military world," said Alexander, 18. "In the civilian world, people think, 'You're crazy for going across there and fighting.'

"But once you get into the military world and see how unselfish your comrades are, it makes you want to fight for your country. Now when I see people not standing for the pledge, it makes me mad. I know that so many people complain about America, but they have it way better than a lot of other countries."

In a way, I understand Alexander's outlook. My admiration for the military rose after moving into a neighborhood full of veterans and active officers in 2001. When 9/11 occurred that same year, it proved a painful reminder of how fortunate Americans are and how grateful we should be.

I've always made college an expectation for my two teenagers, but if they walked in tomorrow with an interest in joining the service, I wouldn't shudder at the thought.

But I do hope they would come in with some research.

That's all I'm saying.

Times correspondent Beionny Mickles contributed to this column.

When children enlist, parental support matters 05/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 5:38pm]
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