I think the best place to start would be the reason we were there in the first place, because after all, it was the most memorable experience from the entire trip.
I have never been a part of a military ceremony of any kind before so this entire event was somewhat overwhelming for me. As we piled into the gym/auditorium with other eager and nervous families, I was astounded by the number of people this single graduation would affect: hundreds of mothers, fathers, siblings, wives & children would soon watch their sailor become a member of the US Navy and life as we all knew it would never be the same.
The ceremony itself was full of tradition and regalia. The sailors marched with purpose and authority. The honor guard presented state flags, rifle drills and the honor band wowed the crowd with moving numbers.
Shortly after the honor guard had finished, the announcer's voice came over the speaker system indicating that the recruits had arrived to the ceremony. Within seconds a large garage style door on the left wall of the gym began to slowly open - and there they were. Six hundred and sixty-four men and women primed to be inducted into the brotherhood of the US Navy.
To try and explain the burst of emotions I felt in this moment would be impossible. I struggled to plant my feet to the stands in order to stop myself from rushing the gym floor screaming, "Paxston!! You did it! YOU DID IT!!!" A quick glance to my left confirmed that my entire family, including Paxston's girlfriend, was teary eyed. As the sailors marched forward and began to fill the gym I caught my first glimpse of Paxston's face and nearly burst into hysteria. I would bet my life that everyone in that gym felt the same span of emotions I felt in that single moment: relief, elation, gratitude, fear, but mostly pride.
Paxston was a recruit in Division 067. We knew from Paxston's letters and phone calls that Division 067 had an exemplary Chief and the division was hoping their scores in bootcamp had earned them the coveted Navy bootcamp "Hall of Fame" award. In the final weeks leading to graduation, Paxston mentioned many times he believed they might get Hall of Fame, but we would have to wait until the graduation ceremony to find out.
About midway through the ceremony, the announcer began to describe the awards/recognitions each division received during their time in bootcamp. As each division's name was called they displayed the award flags won during bootcamp.
It was shortly after this display that the announcer, with very little pomp and circumstance, announced that due to consummate measures during their time at bootcamp Division 067 had been award "Hall of Fame" status, a recognition awarded to less than two percent of all graduation bootcamp divisions. The families seated in the 067 section went NUTS!!!! It was as if the USA just won gold in an ever so tight Olympic event. Jumping, screaming, shouting, PROUD. My brother, a Hall of Fame graduate. Wow....wow....
The ceremony concluded and the announcer indicated the sailors were on "Liberty" to which they all shouted and smiled. We found Paxston in the sea of sailors and hugged and congratulated him. I've never seen him look so good - like a man. I wanted to hoist him on my shoulders and shout, "This is my little brother! He's the man!" I am so proud of his accomplishments. I am grateful that he has chosen to serve. I am scared too death of what his future might hold. But once again, on that day, I was just mainly *proud*.
As my flight descended into Charlotte yesterday and I caught the first glimpse of the skyline I have come to call home, my eyes began to fill with tears. In that moment I had a revelation that was equal parts inspirational and tragic: My brother is a Navy sailor stationed in Great Lakes, IL. I am young wife in the suburbs of Charlotte. Soon, Crickette will be on an adventure of her own. In the not so distant past, we were a tightly knit clan - the Gulledge clan. No matter how often we moved from state to state, we always had each other to lean on. Now, one by one, we are forging our way into adulthood, making a life for ourselves and starting new branches of our family.
If there is one thing this trip confirmed, it is my love for my family. I am proud of Paxston for the path he has chosen to follow. I love the tear filled smiles on my parents' faces every time one of their children accomplish something note worthy. I am hopeful for the glimmers of maturity Crickette is beginning to show as she transitions from teenager to young adult. I am awestruck by the optimism and naivety that cause Ethan to believe there is a solution to every problem and that solution can usually be discovered by someone in his family. As I exited the plane and headed toward baggage claim to find my husband, a thought resounded to my core - my last name may have changed, but a part of me is and always will remain a Gulledge - and for that, I'm truly grateful.