Graduating from boot camp is a special kind of success. It means having survived a harrowing expedition and faced the unknown with bravery. When my friends’ son came home a Marine, I found myself searching for not only congratulatory words, but grateful ones as well.
Growing up a good Southern boy, he’d always addressed me as Miss, and I decided to acknowledge his adulthood with the permission to call me by my first name. The reply came back: “Yes, ma’am.” Clearly, I had not comprehended all the values instilled in a young recruit.
So, what do you say to someone who left home just a neighborhood kid and returned a soldier or sailor? Here are a few things I learned:
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Trying to comprehend all the meaning wrapped up in high-pressure circumstances can be overwhelming to everyone. It’s okay to be a little overwhelmed—just a little. On the other hand, be aware that someone coming back from boot camp might need personal space to process the experiences of the past few months.
Humor is a great stress-management tool, and one aim of boot camp is to help recruits learn to manage stress. Some tales from the journey will be colorful. Some will sound unpleasant or just plain unfair—that’s all part of the package. If your graduate is laughing at his or her own stories, feel free to laugh along.
It’s not necessary to use complicated words to express what you’re feeling. You’re looking at someone who has faced down some rough trials (and been facedown in mud). That person came out on the other side a better man or woman for the experience. What was done is impressive: Feel free to keep it simple and just say congratulations!
Unlike any other graduate you know, a boot-camp grad isn’t just passing through to the next phase of life or education. He or she is moving into an ambiguous future that will require a lot of trust, effort and sacrifice. You and the people you love will be the beneficiaries of that sacrifice: It’s not just okay to say thank you, it’s essential!
With these tips in mind, you can show both love and respect—and make life a little better—for someone who took a hard road. And when you hear a thank-you back, don’t cringe at being called “ma’am”…no matter how young you are.