By JOHN FLOWERS
PANTON — It’s part of a longstanding ritual for military recruits: Saying goodbye to mom before more than two months of boot camp in a faraway state.
But Vermont Army National Guard enlistee David Hawkins won’t be saying goodbye to his mom when he ships out for Fort Jackson in South Carolina in August; he’ll be saying “see you there.”
That’s because David, 18, and his mom Paula, 40, have both signed up for eight-year stints in the Guard last year and will soon head out for basic training.
“It’s not the usual route that it goes,” Paula said on Monday, as she and David talked about their decision at their Panton home.
David enlisted in the National Guard back in December. Since he was still 17 at the time, both his parents had to sign off on his application.
“Since he was about 12 years old, he had talked about (enlisting),” his mother recalled. “He kind of stopped talking about it for a while, then decided that’s what he wanted to do.”
Unbeknownst to David, enlisting in the military is something his mom also had wanted to do — albeit at an earlier stage of her life. All of a sudden she was about to see her oldest son — and by extension, the embodiment of her own dream — leave.
But rather than dismiss her dream, David encouraged his mom to follow it, even at the risk of facing some good-natured ribbing from other recruits. Those new recruits include five other local teens who are, like David, members of the Vergennes Union High School Class of 2009.
“He asked me why (I hadn’t enlisted) and I said, ‘Because I had you,’” Paula said with a chuckle. “Then he said, ‘Why don’t you do it now?’ and I told him, ‘I don’t think they take old ladies.’”
But even at the “ripe old age” of 40, Paula decided to check out the Vermont National Guard enlistment criteria. She checked in with the Sgt. Jason Gordon at the National Guard Armory in Vergennes and learned that she would just make the enlistment age cut-off, but would have to hurry, as new rules were in the offing that would lower the maximum sign-up age to 35.
Paula took the entrance test, passed it, and was sworn into the Guard Feb. 27 — the day after her 40th birthday and just two months after her son made the grade.
“I did pretty well for having been out of school for so long,” Paula said. “I didn’t do as well as David, but I did well enough that I could do what I wanted to do.”
What she wants to do is work full-time as a paralegal for the Vermont National Guard, and she said she will be assured of such a job if she completes basic education and subsequent military training.
That training — for both Hawkins recruits — has already started. They have both reported for Military Entrance Processing Station to get physicals. They have also begun the Recruit Sustainment Program at Camp Johnson in Colchester, a series of training sessions that helps enlistees get a sense of what awaits them at boot camp.
“I’m usually hurting when I do it, but I don’t quit,” Paula said of the physical fitness training.
“Yes, I’m the oldest one there,” she added, as if anticipating the question.
When Paula and David carpool together to Camp Johnson (along with other VUHS recruits), they leave their family association at the gate. As far as they are concerned, they are two separate soldiers-in-training.
“The whole ‘mother’ thing, I don’t want David affected by it,” Paula said. “I don’t know if anyone has said anything to him, but I’m not his mom when I’m (at Camp Johnson). I try not to be.”
It’s a “professional” association the pair vowed to maintain when they enter basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. David ships out in late-July, Paula will join him in mid-August. Basics will last nine weeks and four days.
“I’m just not going to acknowledge she’s my mom until I leave,” David said with a smile.
“Graduation day, then he’s going to say I’m his mom,” Paula said. “I don’t want any pressure on David, like ‘David brought his mom with him, or ‘His mom followed him.’
“It does seem like I’m following him, but we’re actually going in two separate directions,” Paula added.
After basics, both Hawkins will get some additional military training. Then David will begin School at Norwich University next year, where he plans to study mechanical engineering. He will receive 50-percent tuition coverage through the G.I. Bill as a result of his enlistment.
Paula hopes to quickly begin paralegal duties for the Guard. Both are committed to the military for eight years, and will have the regular weekend stints and other service obligations that come with their enlistment. Either one, or both, could be deployed to a conflict somewhere in the world, though they will not be eligible for the Vermont Guard’s major deployment to Afghanistan later this year.
The mother and son both say they are committed to serving their country in a war zone, if needed. They are also pleased to be able to tap into the National Guard’s resources for education and job advancement. Paula said the Guard will give her a future she doesn’t have right now, driving a school bus and working various minimum-wage jobs.
“It’s not going to give me a good retirement,” she said of her current jobs.
Both mom and son realize the next several years will be tough. Paula will have to say goodbye to a younger son, Daniel, soon to be 15. It will also be hard to be in such close proximity to David and not be able to “mother” him.
“He’s smart, he’s kind-hearted, he’s a good son and he’s made good decisions,” she said of David.
It’s a mutual admiration society.
“I’m proud of her,” David said, looking at his mom, then quickly switching gears for some good-natured ribbing: “Then I found out we were going to the same place and I said ‘crap.’ They’ll say, ‘You brought your mom to basic?’”