Saturday, February 11, 2006

What exactly is the right choice?

How do we know, do we ever know, for ourselves, let alone for someone else?

What exactly is the right choice?

Recently, and old friend of mine wrote asking for some advice. It seems her daughter’s boyfriend is talking seriously about joining the Marines. The daughter has been accepted to a great college out of state, the young man was seeing (or she thought he was seeing) his relationship with her daughter slipping away and she felt he’d decided to join the Marines in response.

She was visualizing the young man coming home in a body bag; she cares for him and wants him to be well. Obviously she was concerned about him.

I really didn’t know what to tell her. Those of you who know me, know, that my being at a loss for words, well, it’s a pretty rare occurrence!!

On one hand, I have to admire his courage, patriotism and valor, just for considering enlisting (especially in the Marines!) at a time when our nation is involved in a war, more than one actually, instead of looking elsewhere for a ‘change’.

If it weren’t for young men like him, and the ones before him over the last 200 years, this nation wouldn’t be what, or where, it is today.

On the other hand, to many, this young man’s decision just seems plain foolish. I can understand that as well, having made a similar decision at one point in my life, I certainly got my share of “Are you NUTS?!?!?” comments at the time myself.

I thought about what she’d written, the situation overall and yet found myself with very little actual advice.

I reminded her that, at a similar age, I’d decided to enlist. I never really consider ‘dying’ as any part of my decision process then. I was nineteen, indestructible, immortal, a veritable superman of a human being, death and dying was not any part, of any of my decision processes back then. I doubt they’re any part of his either.

I also reminded her that, she and I would never have met had I not enlisted. (We met at a “Welcome Home” party a few of my friends had after I got out of Boot Camp) That while the military turned out not to be for me, it remains a huge crossroad point in my life. An experience that truly changed me, in many ways, mostly (in the end) for the better and one that while you couldn’t pay me enough to repeat it, you also couldn’t buy the experience for any amount of money either.

One of the things she’d mentioned was that she felt strongly he was doing this because of a perceived fracture in his relationship with her daughter, once she started college. I reminded her that back in the day; I used to make a 24 hour (roundtrip) road trip to spend just 18 hours with her. I went on to say that I thought a college kid should be able to find a way to get to the daughter’s new school, fairly regularly, and be able to spend much more than 18 hours each trip. I’m a big believer in the old “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” sort of reasoning.

The most important piece of advice I gave her though (at least I think so) is that no one gets to decide for another what the ‘right’ course of action is. We make our choices, and take our chances. That if this young man has his heart set on becoming a Marine, he’s going to become a Marine, and the best thing she can do is to support his decision.

Sure, you want to do what you can to be sure he’s thought it through, carefully weighed his options (as in what happened to his school plans?) and isn’t making this choice simply because he wants ‘a change’. In the end though, are you doing that for him, or in an attempt to alleviate your own fears?

I also mentioned that with this (I’m assuming unexpected) turn in his ‘future picture’, he’s probably feeling a little adrift, without direction, maybe a little less centered, and believes the military will provide the direction he seeks. Make no mistake about it, the military will definitely provide him direction, the important thing for him, is to determine if it’s a direction he wants for himself.

While I understand her concern for this young man, I do think she’s over-reacting, just a bit. I don’t know what the actual odds are, but I’m willing to wager that the odds of any young man in America making it to say age 24 are statistically about the same, regardless of their joining, or not joining, a military unit.

In fact a little ‘Googling’ led me to the following:

“Between ages 15 and 24 years, men are four to five times more likely to die than women. This time frame coincides with the onset of puberty and an increase in reckless and violent behavior in males. Researchers refer to it as a "testosterone storm." Most deaths in this male group come from motor vehicle accidents, followed by homicide, suicide, cancer, and drowning.” “After age 24, the difference between male and female mortality narrows until late middle age. In the 55- to 64-year-old range, more men than women die, due mainly to heart disease, suicide, car accidents, and illnesses related to smoking and alcohol use.”

At: Harvard

I've done quite a bit of reading, since getting her note, about male mortality rates, life expectancy and so on. In none of the statistics I read was military service listed as a leading cause of death in males under the age of 24. Statistically, he’s got less of a chance of dying as a result of being in the military, and a far greater risk of dying because he’s in a car, driving to visit his girlfriend.

So, in the end, I’m not sure I helped at all, or if my thoughts were really much in the way of advice. I’d personally support his decision, or anyone’s for that matter, to join the military, provided they truly felt it was the right thing for them to do. I’d want him to be sure he knew “why” he was signing up, but once I felt he had thought it through, I’d fully support him. Hell, the truth is I’d support him even if I thought it was the wrong decision. Kids need to make mistakes, it’s how they learn, and we adults, while we try to guide them, are really supposed to just help them back up when they fall.

I guess it’s like getting married, buying a house, or making any other major life decision. You’d hope a person would think it through, weigh the options and attempt to make the best possible choice. The truth is though, with most of us, for most of our decisions, we simply do what ‘feels right’ to us, and no amount of rational, or irrational, arguments from someone else are likely to alter our decision.

So, what would you have told her to do? What advice would you have given? Should she try and talk him out of signing up? At what point does her concern become ‘interference’? I'd really like to know your thoughts!!

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dale said...

Apparently the young man has no plans for college. Joining the military can give him a leg up on that when he gets out. he will have valuable experiences that will last him a lifetime, and give him an opportunity to grow as a person.

If she's going off to college and he's not, chances are high that the relationship is doomed now. If the two do get together, they will most likely grow apart because of their educational differences.

maybe, because of her education, she will earn more money than he does and that is a difficult thing for many men to handle.

If his only reason for going into the military is to escape the pain of dealing with the possibility of a broken relationship, then he could find a better way. But if he has other good reasons for joining, then he should go.

Just keep him off motorcycle's and he will probably be fine.

Bill said...

Dale - Welcome... I think a good motorcycle might just set the kid straight!!

Your thoughts are pretty much in line with mine... as an alternative to college, I think the military makes a great deal of sense, not to mention, once he's finished his hitch, he might be ready for college, and have the money to fund it as well!!

I don't think educational, or earning potential, have anythign to do with the sucess or failure of a relationship. Well, they could, but I don't see there being a 'destined to fail' sign out where differences exist.

Lorna said...

Even when I have strong feelings about the direction someone is thinking about taking, I think the best I can do is help that person see the range of possible consequences, so that he/she can make an informed decision. It's hard not to give advice, but it's also hard to be part of a decision that has a dire effect. That made me sound sort of cowardly, actually. That may be so, but it's the choice I've made and I seldom regret it.

Comfort Addict said...

Young people are not fully developed and are often not prone to take advice (especially from their elders). I'm not sure to what degree the boyfriend confides in your friend. I think that the best thing she could do is make herself available if he feels the need to talk. If that happens, she should do a lot of listening, be respectful of his feelings and, if he seeks any advice, give it in that spirit.

Bill said...

Lorna - I don't think that makes you seem cowardly at all. I think what you're expressing is simply the duality of emotion we all face when we see someone we care about making a possibly life changing decision.

Seeing the range of possible outcomes is something I think many folks simply do not do, I know I don't always do it, having a friend who's willing to point out some things we may not have seen, or thought of, to me, makes them a very good friend.

CA - Exactly right... I remember that time in my life all too well... I didn't take advice (or orders) all that well, and I always thought I knew exactly the right move.

I'm not sure of their relationship eother, another reason it was difficult for me to offer any, what I thought was, solid advice.

I think you've captured the essense of what a good friend does. They're available, they listen, and when you're ready for some advice, they often have some you haven't thought of yet.

I know I would have (and did) put up the wall if I was him and she just started going on about what a mistake I was making... respecting his feelings, and his right to make his own decisions is critical if she wants anything she has to say to get through.

Y'all, as usual, are just right there, and spot on the money!! Thanks!

I hope she's reading and getting an idea or two.

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...


I would like to know how the young man's parents feel about his desire to enlist. Are they supporting it? Or are they against it? That can also have a bearing on what his decision is, or why he makes it.

The reason I'm asking this is because WAYYYYYYY back in "the day" - - when I was young and foolish and single and totally carefree - - I was dating a very nice young man. I then decided to go off to College. I also decided it might be best to break things off with him, since we were going to be 3-4 hours apart, and to be quite honest with you, I was not ready to embark on a new "life journey" and be "tied down" to a boy that far away. I tried to break it off as gently as possible, but to no avail. His last threat was that if I broke up with him when I left, he would join the Navy and go as far away as possible.

Well, I chalked that up to his lack of maturity, broke things off with him, and left.

I'll be darned - - he joined the Navy and was gone for 10 years!

His mother - - who was NEVER in favor of his signing up - - still blamed ME for his leaving - - even after all those years, and I was married, and so was he, and we both had kids!

Just reminiscing . . . . :-)


Bill said...

Liz - That's a very good question.. and honestly I have no idea. I don't know him, or his parents...

The very early 70's was when I enlisted too... I think it took my Mom about 15 years before she forgave me for doing it!!

This kid could join up and find it's a career he loves... discover it's the worst mistake he's made in his life... but, when it's all said and done, that's what life is all about anyway. Finding our way.

It's a tough call, but it's his call, at least in my mind.

However it turns out, I just hope he's happy.

Cylithria™ said...

Bill, wow I read this post and my heart lept in my throat. With one man in my life over in Iraq (David) and three young ones (the girls ages 15 and 18 and our son age almost 18) at home or schools, I never thought I'd face what your friend is... sort of. Just weeks ago I found out David did sign the paperwork for Tim to be on delayed entry Status for the USMC.

Floored, flabergasted, and freaked does not begin to describe the emotions I had. My daddy was a Marine, as was his daddy before him and his granddaddy. My hubby's a Marine. I am all things Marine Corps, how could I not love those crusty bastards (excuse the french) but Tim. Sweet, somewhat Shy like his father, gentle Tim....well it's a good thing David is in Iraq or I might have actually slapped him at first. LOL

But.... for as freaked as I am, I am also so proud of him.

I think what you told your friend was the best you could offer and I know the fact that you listened to her and took time to try and help somehow means more then anything to her.

I wish her, her daughter and this young man the best. And I tip my hat to you Bill for trying... :)

Firehawk said...


I think that I would respond in this way: 1) Make sure that this kid isn't just upset and doing the first thing that comes to his mind. I'd ask that he consider it for at least a month before he went any further with that line of reasoning. At that age, the emotions are so strong, and you don't have the tools to deal with being hurt emotionally. Sometimes you just do something dangerous or self-destructive because you can't stand feeling that you've failed.
2) I'd tell him that, likely as not, he'll end up in the fighting over in Iraq if he joins up. He'll see things happen, and maybe do things himself, that are going to be hard to process or forget. He'll probably see both the finest and the worst impulses of human beings, and it will change his thought processes in many ways.
3) If he's thinking of joining to "prove something to someone", he probably won't. Actions done for that reason never work out like you think they will. If you want to do something, do it for your own reasons, not for some external reinforcement you think you'll get.

Anyway, that's what I'd say. Then again, the wisdom of a fool is worse than silence.

Bill said...

Cyli - I knew this one would touch 'home' for you. It's a tough decision, for the young person making it, and for those around them. The more we care for someone, the more we seem to want to 'shield' them from themselves, and the less nice aspects of humanity.

I also knew you'd be freaked out, and proud, if it was happening to you... but I didn't know it was!

I'm proud of Tim too, as well as of David, you and the lineage you so proudly speak of.

David, Time and you are always in our prayers.

Firehawk - Yep.. my thoughts as well. It's not a decision to be undertaken lightly, it is indeed serious business.

Those parts of humanity you mentioned, the best, and the worst. The things he'd see, or do, are all also part of that reality set...

Now that I've had 30 years or so to put some distance in the equation, I've got to say I saw that, did that... and that... that process, that knowledge, changed me... sometimes in ways I wasn't comfortable with, but in the end, I really believe it empowered me with a belief, that after that, I could handle anything life tossed my way.

I know I didn't feel that way before that experience. Knowing the wonderful things men can do, is every bit as important as understanding the evil they can do, don't you think?