For some young recruits, the US military is the family business
By Matthew Hay Brown | The Baltimore Sun | Published: February 28, 2014
Growing up, when Alex Pownall watched his father, he saw a man who loved his job.
John Pownall has served 20 years in the military, the past 12 as a recruiter for the Maryland National Guard. He was sent to defend Andrews Air Force Base after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and advised the Afghan National Army in 2011 and 2012.
"He looked forward to drill, and he came home happy," Alex Pownall said.
So when Alex turned 17 last year, he needed no convincing. He joined the Maryland National Guard in October and is waiting to finish high school so he can go to boot camp.
Pownall is one of several sons and daughters who have enlisted in the Maryland Guard in recent years to serve alongside their parents. The Guard has about 6,000 members; the influx of offspring has brought the number of children serving with their parents to about two dozen.
Increasingly, war is a family business. Military veterans are more likely than the general population to be related to other servicemembers, and older Americans are twice as likely as younger Americans to have an immediate family member who served, the Pew Research Center reported in 2011.
The Maryland recruits speak of being inspired by their parents' service, of being eager to have some of the same experiences, and of hoping to be able to serve alongside them.
They join the military with an intimate understanding of the commitment they're making: They've grown up seeing mothers and fathers go off to war.
Although the United States has withdrawn its forces from Iraq and plans to pull out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, the Maryland guard continues to deploy around the world: Members now are serving in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Horn of Africa, South Korea and on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The sons and daughters are joining at a time when military service is the province of a shrinking minority of Americans. During World War II, most of the male population of fighting age enlisted. During the Vietnam War, a draft meant that, theoretically, any American man could be called to serve. But in the all-volunteer military, less than 1 percent of the population has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Lance Newby finds such trends troubling not only for the military, but for society as a whole.
Newby, the director of maintenance for the Maryland Guard, said joining the military 33 years ago reinforced the values of integrity, honesty and selflessness his parents taught him at home.
"If you're not getting that today at home and you don't go into the military, where do you learn it?" he asked.
Newby's 22-year-old daughter, Jordin, enlisted on Sept. 11, 2011 — the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. She is serving in the Guard while studying psychology at Towson University and participating in ROTC at Loyola University Maryland.
"Obviously, I've been a Guard kid my whole life," Jordin Newby said. "I mean, it's like home, almost."
For families, serving together can also mean deploying together. In 2012, Sgt. 1st Class Lester Parks Sr. and his son, 1st Lt. Lester Parks Jr., left together for Afghanistan. The Baltimore natives serve with the 115th Military Police Battalion, which spent a year in Kandahar providing security and training the Afghan National Police.
The older Parks lives in Newark, the younger in Leesburg, Va. They say they saw more of each other in Afghanistan than they do stateside.
"When you deploy, you are all a family and you look after each other," said Lieutenant Parks, the battalion's military intelligence officer. "But to have your father with you just adds something a little more special.
"It's also nice just to see him every day, even if it is only for a couple minutes."
Sergeant Parks, the battalion's logistics noncommissioned officer, said being on the deployment with his son meant worrying less about him.
Master Sgt. Mark Bagley has three children in the Maryland National Guard. Pfc. Lucas Bagley, 19, joined the infantry in 2012. In February, he flew to Puerto Rico to practice jumping out of airplanes. Pfc. Markee Bagley, 21, enlisted last January to become a military police officer. While her brother was away, Markee was called up during the snow emergency to help drive police and emergency responders around Hagerstown. Their stepsister, Pvt. Whitley Tobei, 17, enlisted in October.
Mark Bagley joked that the family is "freakshow close" — "We don't like being apart from each other" — and his children laughed and nodded in agreement.
A recruiter, he said he meets his quotas without needing to volunteer his family — but their service does help him talk to families of prospective recruits who have reservations about the sacrifice and risks involved in military service.
"I'm still a parent," he said. "I tell them, 'I understand your concern. I have kids in here.'"
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Roark, also a recruiter, said he told his son what the military did for him but didn't pressure him to enlist.
"He's a young man," Roark said. "The choices that he makes are going to be his choices. ... I can only lead my son so far. At some point there, he's not going to take any more direction from me."
Pvt. Nick Loder, Roark's 18-year-old son, calls enlisting in 2012 "a great decision," because of the action — he jumped with Lucas Bagley at Camp Santiago in Puerto Rico — and the bonds he has formed with fellow soldiers now dispersed throughout the world.
Serving with a parent can be a mixed blessing.
"I'm constantly Col. Newby's kid," Jordin Newby said. "I can't wait until he retires, so maybe that will stop some.
"But it's been really great, because if I do something and I'm not sure it's really right, instead of making myself look like a fool, I can say, 'Dad, is this right? Am I doing this wrong?'"
Spc. James Nowell said there can be a different kind of pressure on the son or daughter of a soldier.
"If I don't know something, then it's like, 'Why don't you know that?" he said. "Well, because I was like 15 years old. Why would I know every little detail? It's not like he comes home and it's boot camp in my house."
Nowell, 20, is a medic. His father, 2nd Lt. Clarence Nowell, who was commissioned an officer in January after 23 years as an enlisted soldier and noncommissioned officer, said he has used his experience to help guide his son's career. A former infantryman, Clarence steered James to a job in which he could develop a skill that would translate more easily to a civilian career.
"When you're young, you want to jump out of planes, you want to be in the infantry, you want to blow things up. And that's great. We need those guys. But I also want him to have the skill," he said.
Pfc. Maeyamonique P. Barnes, a military police officer with the 425th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, and her dad, Staff Sgt. Albert Barnes, a unit supply sergeant with the 1st Squadron (Airborne), 40th Cavalry, 4-25 ABCT, enjoy a moment together during their 2011-2012 deployment in Afghanistan.
Jeffrey Smith/U.S. Army