Father and Son Write About Love and the Marine Corps
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2003 Before his youngest son joined the Marine Corps, Frank Schaeffer's impression of military service could be summed up on a mock recruiting poster: "Out of Work? Undereducated? No Health Plan? Join the Army and see Iraq."
Author Frank Schaeffer said his attitude toward the military changed dramatically after his youngest son became a Marine. He and his son, then Marine Lance Cpl. John Schaeffer, co-wrote the book, "Keeping Faith," which presents the perspective of a Marine recruit and his father. Photo courtesy of Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
But his attitude changed dramatically after his son, John, signed up for the Marines after high school, graduated from boot camp and later went to Iraq.
Father and son teamed up to co-write the book, "Keeping Faith A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps." The book covers John's boot camp experiences at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., and the family's perspective of dealing with issues of class, duty and patriotism raised by residents of their affluent, suburban-Boston community along the North Shore of Massachusetts.
The book, written in alternate voices by father and son, is about how the experience changed them both.
The elder Schaeffer said he was taken aback when his son announced he was joining the Marines. "My friends were sending their sons and daughters to top colleges," the father said during a speech last summer at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Groton, Conn.
The family's two older children attended Georgetown and New York University, noted Schaeffer, author of novels like "Portofino," about a young boy's family vacations in a seaside town, and its sequel, "Zermatt."
"I never served in the military," he observed. "Our kind - higher-education- worshipping denizens of the North Shore - rarely enlist these days."
His son's decision to join the Marines made it harder for the elder Schaeffer to face his friends. "So where is John going to college?" was the question he said he didn't relish answering "from parents who were itching to tell me all about how their son or daughter was going to Harvard."
Noting that in 1999, his son was the only senior graduating from the Waring School, an elite prep school in Beverly, Mass., to consider military service, Schaeffer said one perplexed mother asked him, "But aren't the Marines terribly Southern?"
"What a waste, he was such a good student," said another parent.
When John graduated from boot camp, more than 3,000 parents, relatives and friends were there to see their new Marine, Schaeffer said. "Many were poor. Some arrived crammed in the backs of pickups, others by bus. John told me that a lot of parents could not afford the trip," he said.
"We in the audience were white and Native American. We were Hispanic, African American and Asian," Schaeffer said. "We were former Marines wearing the scars of battle, or at least baseball caps emblazoned with battles' names."
Noting the diversity of the spectators at Parris Island that day, Schaeffer said he couldn't help comparing the experience with one he'd had six months earlier.
"We would not have been mistaken for the educated and well-heeled parents gathered on the lawns of John's private school a half-year before," he said.
Reflecting on John's birth 22 years ago, Frank Schaeffer said his son "grew into a gifted poet, athlete, loyal friend and, most surprisingly - to me at any rate - a Marine," he told the audience in Groton.
"John could have gone to any college in the country," he continued. "But he chose military service. It has taken me several years to figure out why he joined."
He quoted a passage John wrote for their book that he said helped him to better understand and respect his son's decision:
"I could hardly remember why I'd joined. In any case, what I imagined I was joining, and the reality of the Corps were two different things.
"If the recruiters had tried to explain the truth about the Corps to me before I signed up, I would not have understood them. People enlisted in the Corps for selfish reasons: self-improvement; because they were broke; because they had nothing better to do; had something to prove to fathers, mothers and girlfriends; or for training that would 'pay off' later in the civilian world.
"Some joined to follow in the footsteps of fathers and brothers. Some bought into the nice uniforms or just wanted to belong to something, anything, or to see the world. After we all got to Parris Island, our reasons for wanting to be Marines changed and deepened or we got sent home
"When it came down to it, as any recruit could tell you by the end of his or her training, the Marine next to you is more important than you are."
The father said he learned a few things from his son's experiences. "One truth I've learned is that my son's Marine brothers and sisters work in a multicultural meritocracy that puts our best colleges to shame when it comes to equal opportunity and true integration, let alone resolve and unselfish purpose," Schaeffer noted. "I never hear about the color of my son's current roommate at any posting in the fleet. I'm only told that such-and-such a Marine is 'an awesome Marine' or that he is not."
Schaeffer said he wrote about his journey from being the reluctant father of a Marine recruit "to becoming the proud parent of one of our defenders."
After the book hit bookstores, he said, he was flooded with more than 2,000 "humbling and supportive" letters and e-mails, mostly from other parents of military personnel, and a few from military and political leaders.
One woman wrote, "When my son joined the Marines, I was stuck somewhere between devastation and shock. Now I am so proud of him." Another said of her officer daughter, "When she gave me the recruiting pamphlets all those years ago, I tried every tack to try and talk her out of her choice. I thought Marines would be anti-intellectual, sexist automatons I was shamefully wrong."
Then Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, who is now commander, U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, wrote to Schaeffer, "There has been a 'disconnect' between the men and women who defend our nation and those who are the beneficiaries of that service."
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush wrote letters of encouragement and praise. Former President Bush wrote, "Even after 9/11, there are many who look down on our men and women who serve This is a cultural arrogance."
But Schaeffer points out that many parents will not even allow their children's high schools to give their names and addresses to recruiters. "Some parents apparently find it unbearably onerous that their children might be asked to even consider serving their country, though their children not only may refuse the phone call but, of course, are under no obligation to join," he noted.
"According to all polls, the military is held in very high esteem by most Americans," Schaeffer said. "But the class gap between who serves and who doesn't is so marked now that exceptions draw interest from the media."
He said since the end of the Vietnam War, a certain educated and wealthy class of Americans have felt an exemption for themselves and their children from contributing their fair share - proportionate to their numbers - to the defense of the nation.
"I certainly am not proud of the fact that for years, to me, the defense of our country was someone else's problem, never mine or my children's," Schaeffer said. "My 'Let them eat cake' attitude changed when my youngest son proved he was a better human being than me."