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Becoming An American Soldier

Michael standing between his friends

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On January 20, my son, PFC Michael Cunningham, completed Army Infantry OSUT (One Station Unit Training), which combines basic training and Infantry AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in a 17 week course, with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment at Fort Benning, Georgia.

When his mother and I arrived on the 19th for Family Day, we walked up to the Company Area at the barracks for the Turning Blue Ceremony. It could not have been a more perfect day for the occasion: sunny, and a near 60 degree temperature. We gathered with the other family members while waiting for the ceremony to begin.

One of the parents approached me. “Is your son in the third platoon, or fourth?” I looked at him and said I didn’t know. Figures there’d have to be a small glitch. I walked over to my ex-wife. “You know, it never occurred to me to ask what platoon Michael’s in. The first and second will be on the right, and the third and fourth will be on the left.” She positioned herself on the left side of the viewing area, and I on the right.

As the soldiers rushed out in a loud roar and fell into formation, all I saw was a blur of green uniforms and black berets. Trying to pick my son out felt like trying to find one specific collector’s penny in a whole jar. I looked over at my ex-wife, who was now motioning me to come over where she was. “He’s in the Fourth Platoon, last row, first from the right,” she said as I followed her finger to the young man she pointed out for me.

Countless push-ups, sit-ups and 14 minute two-mile runs from when I last saw him, I barely recognized him. He looked taller, and reminded me of how I looked when I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. As his mother said later, “Slap a pair of Calvin Klein’s on him, and he’d be the perfect model.”

The Drill Sergeants called the men to attention. In a booming voice, they recited “The Soldier’s Creed:”

“I am an American Soldier.
I am a warrior and member of a team
I serve the people of the United States and live the Army values. . .”

The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hickenbottom, then welcomed us to the ceremony and reflected on the experiences these young men had had during the last few months, congratulating them for a job well done. He then gave the parents the opportunity to “turn their soldier blue” by attaching the coveted blue shoulder cord representing the infantry to the soldiers uniform. After a few minutes of fumbling with trying to attach the loop of the cord to the button of his epaulet, my son looked at me and said, “Dad, you were a Marine. It shouldn’t be that hard.”

“We didn’t have cords,” I said as I finally finished the task of turning my son blue by buttoning his epaulet back after I had attached his cord. After several pictures taken of the event, our son introduced us to his Drill Sergeants and his friends he had made while in training.

The soldiers were called back to formation, and leave passes for the day were given. The parents were instructed to make sure we got our son back by 2000 hrs. When the ceremony concluded, his mother had pictures of him taken by a studio photographer. Finished with that, the first thing my son wanted was real food from an Italian restaurant. “Have you eaten at Carrabba’s before? It’s really good,” he said.

The graduation ceremony the next morning was a completely different experience. As my son’s mother and I sat in the reviewing stand on Pomeroy Field, the Battalion Commander welcomed us back and asked that our attention be front and center. Next we knew, we were under attack.

A couple of smoke grenades were tossed onto the parade field. “Bad to the Bone” started playing over the loud speakers as two Bradley Fighting Vehicles entered onto the field from opposite directions and came to a stop in the cloud of smoke. When the smoked had cleared, we found ourselves staring down at an Infantry assault platoon, their M16’s drawn at the ready. “Mommy,” said a little girl sitting just below us, “that’s really scary.”

After the demonstration, you could hear the drill instructors calling cadence. Off in the distance to the right, you could see the soldiers marching in formation toward the field. I was completely unprepared for what happened next. Overcome by an enormous sense of pride, I found myself wiping tears on my shirt sleeve. My son’s mother would later poke fun at me—good naturedly, of course—by mentioning the episode to my son.

The Battalion Commander gave another congratulatory speech and then dismissed the soldiers. Our son, though, was not allowed to leave as many as the other recruits were. He, along with 35 other 18X’s (Special Forces Option) who had successfully completed their training, was ordered to fall out, gather his gear, and head over to the parking lot across the street.

“Your son’s,” said the drill sergeant who had gathered us parents around him, “will be reporting to Airborne School for processing. When they’re finished, which will be two to three hours, they will be given weekend passes.”

It wasn't until about nine hours later that our son had finally finished processing. At eight o’clock at night, we were all hungry and a bit tired after what seemed to be an exceptionally long day that his mother and I had passed by browsing books at Barnes and Nobel at the shopping mall in Columbus. Longhorn Steakhouse sounded like a good choice by my son, who said he could eat the biggest steak they had since he hadn’t eaten lunch.

He settled for an 18oz Porterhouse. After we finished eating, we went back to his mother’s hotel room at the Marriott and watched Nicholas Cage in The Lord of War. The next day was spent at the mall shopping for civilian clothes. When it came time for my son to say goodbye to his mother later that night, I could tell she was very proud of what our son had become. After he completes Airborne School, he goes on to Special Forces Assessment training, and then the actual Qualification Course at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Considering his desire and determination to make it all the way through, I have no doubt he’ll succeed.

As for his mother and me, we were able to share our son’s achievement without any awkward pretensions. Both of us were entirely comfortable and relaxed around him, and it felt good to share another momentous event with one of our children. Last year it was our daughter’s high school graduation. This year, our son’s graduation from Army Infantry OSUT. If all my ex-wife and I ever have left in common with each other in this life are our children--aside from grandkids maybe later on--well, that’s just fine by me.

By S. L. Cunningham
Village Soup Citizen, 2/15/06:26