Rite of passage

Seaman Apprentice Birong

The U.S. ended military conscription in 1973. Prior to that, every young man, upon reaching the age of eighteen, was required to register for the draft (as they are to this day, by the way). And then, before the ink was dry on the registration form, each would be on his way to a boot camp somewhere. Of course, there would always be those who would manage to avoid this responsibility one way or another, temporarily if not completely, but most would eventually board a bus bound somewhere for a very short haircut.

In the case of my father, he wasn’t conscripted during WWII. He enlisted of his own volition in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the U.S. Air Force. Things were different back then. Everyone wanted to join the military to help save the free world. Young men lied about their age to get in. So, off he went to boot camp, and then to flight school in Texas, and eventually to the aerial bombing fields of Germany.

As a result of this experience, it seemed my father never really considered any young man (including me) to be an adult until he successfully completed what was at the time mandatory military recruit training. That was because Dad had been through all that and knew that every boy who went in came out a man—it was the ultimate rite of passage for an American male.

Speaking of my own boot camp experience, one warm evening in June 1966, there were about thirty or so of us raw recruits on a chartered bus when it finally lumbered through the arched gate at the USCG recruit training center in Cape May, New Jersey. And a motley crew we were, indeed. Many of us had shoulder length hair, holes in our trousers, tie-died T-shirts and scrappy facial hair. These various costumes and personal affectations were, of course, how each of us chose to display our individuality. But a mere twenty-four hours later we would find ourselves, one and all, clad in white boxer shorts and T-shirts and standing rigidly at attention at the foot of our cots, our freshly shorn heads glistening under the fluorescent lights of our newly assigned barracks. We were now rendered equals—no matter where we hailed from or what we knew – or did not know – how old we were or what ideas we might have had tumbling around in our relatively new brains. In one fell swoop we were shed of our individuality and poised on the threshold of a total transformation: mentally, physically and emotionally.

Hold onto your hats.

What a humbling experience that was. But our company commanders knew that to convert us boys into men, each of our egos would have to be stripped down to its essentials—and then completely rebuilt from the ground up. The military is good at this—they have been doing it for centuries if not millennia.

Without a doubt, the three most important goals of recruit basic training are: 1) to instill discipline, not only in terms of respecting authority but also at a personal level; 2) to learn how to work together as a team toward a common goal; and 3) to further instill the pride that comes from being accepted by one’s peers as a member of that team.

Initially, that “team” consisted of our fellow recruit class members (Class of “Papa 64”, in my case). Upon graduation eight weeks later, our team would expand to include the entire military branch we represented as we strode through an airport in full uniform, keenly aware of the small gold shield emblazoned on the cuffs of our Navy blue jumpers that distinguished the USCG form the USN. And then, further, to include the entire nation we were bound to serve.

It has now been more than four decades since every able-bodied American son, upon reaching majority, was required to pass through this portal of manhood. And I can say, unequivocally, that many of our boys will make out just fine without doing so. But my observations of the modern young male indicate that others might well benefit from a little coaching in how to “grow up.” By being able to avoid the experience of military service, it is likely that some of these young men will never fully develop the maturity necessary to make a marriage work or to advance a career by working as a team member or, for that matter, to raise their own children to become self-reliant, responsible adults.

Worst of all, it would seem those in this category are often inclined to take their freedom for granted, since they have done nothing to earn it—or preserve it. No longer being required to do so, they seem reluctant to step into the world of adulthood, content with living life as an adult only vicariously through the pretend-warriors on their video games. I often wonder how some of these guys ever get girls.

Petty Officer Birong receiving his search and rescue aircrew wings.

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