As Memorial Day approaches, and brings thoughts of sacrifice, it makes me wonder what leads people into the military. It varies for everyone, of course, but in many cases, it is the power of family and community that draws us into the military. Here is my story.
When I was a boy in the early 1970s, I attended for a time Quantico High School, a Department of Defense institution in northern Virginia. My father was an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and over the years of my early life, we had been stationed three separate times at the sprawling and woodsy Quantico Marine Corps Base. It was a paradise for a young boy, full of woods and trails, places to camp, lots of organized athletics, a river nearby, and good sports facilities.
In those years, we lived in a succession of military houses, from the small duplex of a junior officer; to a nice sized single house for a Major and eventually a Lieutenant Colonel; then finally a beautiful and stately Colonel’s house at the top of a wooded rise.
This past weekend, while on a trip to Washington, I had a chance to drive around the base again for the first time in many years. It hasn’t changed so much, at least as I remember it. There are buildings for the training and education of Marine Officers, nice clubs and recreation facilities, a good sized Navy-Marine Corps Exchange and – for me most significantly – Quantico High School. It all looks well cared for, with many new homes and buildings.
I can remember vividly running cross-country and playing tennis on the teams there, and studying in the small class rooms, and above all feeling the sense of community that was so strong there, a child of a Marine family, among other Marine children, all of our fathers engaged in what we knew was serious and important work for the nation.
When I started at Quantico High School, my father had just returned from a year in Vietnam. He had fought as well in Korea as an officer, and served as an enlisted Marine in the Second World War.
In Vietnam, he commanded a reinforced battalion of over a thousand Marines around Da Nang, and he enjoyed the tour and was proud of the work of his Marines in combat. While much of the rest of the country in that time was anguished about that war and generally not appreciative of the Vietnam Vets, my father – like the vast majority of his contemporaries who fought there – was proud.
It influenced me, of course, and I knew what I wanted: Annapolis and a career in the Marine Corps, just like my father. Many of us in Quantico High School in those days aspired to the same course, and many achieved it. I did go to Annapolis, of course; but along the voyage of the years at the Academy decided to go to sea in the Navy; and have no regrets. My father was always very good about my decision, and we remained extremely close until he passed away in 2001.
So given a chance to take a Sunday afternoon drive through Quantico, I jumped at it; and so many good memories of those days flooded over me. It made me realize, yet again, what a fine thing it was to have lived on that small base, in a warm and closely knit military family, with a real sense of purpose and a path to service.
Going back to Quantico – if only for an afternoon drive and a few moments of reflection – makes me realize how lucky and happy I was in those days. It made me realize as well that what often underpins a life in the military is the sense of family and community as an anchor in this turbulent world.
Admiral James Stavridis
Commander, U.S. European Command and
Supreme Allied Commander Europe