In June 2012, my partner deployed to Afghanistan as a soldier with the Australian Army. During the next six months, I’d often be having a conversation with someone when they would look at me with sympathy and say: “It must be so hard for you.”
My response was always the same: “It has its moments, but it’s harder for his parents.”
If I happened to be talking to another mother or father, they would usually start to nod their head in agreement. They knew what I was talking about. They could imagine living with the fear of losing something they had created – a piece of themself – something they knew you couldn’t live without. “They must be so brave,” some people would respond after a few seconds silence. Others would say: “I could never let my son do that.”
And they were right; Christine and Greg Martin are brave parents. They are also strong. But they were never the parents of a soldier by choice.
They raised their three children to grow up to follow their dreams. They raised them to go after what they wanted in life. They did a good job. Perhaps too good of a job. They raised a determined, young man, who turned around at age 16 and said he wanted to join the army – as an infantry soldier – and it terrified them.
“We tried for many months to convince him to do a trade,” Christine says. “And I dropped subtle hints about what other options there must be,” Greg adds.
They knew their efforts were selfish. They knew deep down in their hearts that this was something their son wanted to do. But they also knew life wouldn’t be the same without him, so like most parents, they wanted to keep him out of harm’s way.
“The fear overrode everything else,” Christine says. “I thought ‘What if I lose him – how do I live the rest of my life?’.”
Eventually, as hard as it was, they accepted their son’s decision to become a soldier and supported him when he enlisted in the army at 19 years old. In the days since then, he has made them so incredibly proud on numerous occasions.
But just because they supported his decision, doesn’t mean it made the experience any easier. Christine and Greg say it was the hardest day of their lives when they saw their son off at the airport as he headed to Afghanistan. And every day during the six months that followed wasn’t much easier.
But being the parent of a soldier has taught them both a few things along the way. “It taught me to value the moments that you did have together,” Greg says. “[And] it taught me to be tolerant and to have respect for what he wanted to do,” Christine adds. “It taught me to trust in your child.”
Tibor Glesk, chief skydive instructor and owner of Sunshine Coast Skydivers agrees that you have to trust in your child. He sits on both sides of the fence. He was a kid who grew up to pursue a career within a dangerous and adventurous field and he is now a father whose own child is pursuing a dangerous career in flying.
“You are always a little bit worried [as a parent],” Tibor explains. “But [children] should be able to do what they love.”
He says as a parent you should teach your child to be responsible and to not take unnecessary risks. If you have done these two things, then you just have to trust your child to make the right decision and strap yourself in for the ride.
And that is probably one of the best ways to describe what it is like being the mother or father of a soldier, or skydive instructor, or firefighter, or racing car driver. “It’s a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs,” says Pat Caine, whose son is a fast jet pilot and instructor with the United Kingdom RAF. “As for the danger, it is just part of being alive.”
As a parent, it must be hard to watch your child be braver than you could ever be. It must be hard to let them risk their life; a life you gave them. It must be even harder to fathom the thought of losing them. But, as a parent, perhaps the hardest thing of all is to stand in the way of your child and something that they love.
Greg and Christine Martin know this better than anyone. Having been through it themselves, Greg’s final piece of advice to other parents is simple: “Support [your children], go with them, be proud of them and hope for the best.”
Nicole Thomson-Pride is a freelance writer who loves to tell a story or two. You can follow her on Twitter here.