What 29 Years in the Marine Corps Taught Me About Fatherhood

"You know you're missing part of your kids’ childhood. And that's a little depressing. Is that worth it? Absolutely. Does it suck in the moment? Absolutely."

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Military families face a unique and difficult set of challenges. Service members with kids quickly learn that a predictable family routine is one of many things they need to sacrifice in the name of duty. While advances in communications technology have allowed military dads to keep in touch with family members half a world away, they’re still, well, half a world away. They miss the daily occurrences other fathers take for granted. Like watching their kids savage a bowl of Cheerios. Or talking through the Ninjago universe with them. Or consoling them after they strike out in Little League. These fathers must work harder to be part of their children’s — and spouse’s — lives.

Fatherly spoke to a variety of military dads about their service, their families, and how they managed to balance the two. Here, Master Gunnery Sergeant John McGilvrey, a father of two, explains the unique sacrifices of the Marine Corps and why, despite missing out on so much of his children’s lives, his service is worth it in the end.

I’ve been in the Marine Corps for 29 years. My son just turned 18. You do the math. I became a father fairly late. It is challenging, to say the least, especially with deployments and the never-ending war. But I don’t know anything different, if that makes sense.

I was married in Hawaii and it was ’99, so it was before all the crazy kicked off. I was a flight instructor.

When my son was born, it was a life-changing experience. But the challenges of the military are very hard when it comes to parenting. The demands that are on you are almost never-ending. Right? And that’s without a war. Without having a solid wife, it would have been nearly impossible. First thing I’d like to say is hats off to all the single moms and dads out there. I’m at the tail-end of my career, getting ready to retire; if I was younger, I don’t know that I could do it.

You know you’re missing part of your kids’ childhood. And that’s a little depressing. Is that worth it? Absolutely. Does it suck in the moment? Absolutely.

Right after September 11th, I requested orders. This is another funny thing about the military: When you’re a war fighter, you go to war. So I immediately requested orders to a deploying gun squadron and went back to California and deployed every year for four years to Iraq. And so I missed the first couple years of my son’s life doing that. And it’s a conscious choice you make. I’m not defending it or not saying it’s a good choice or a bad choice. That’s what we do. And their mom did a great job raising them.

I tried to talk to the kids every single night. It didn’t work out between their mom and I but still, when they lived with their mom I talked to them every night just like I did when I was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Every single night unless coms were down.

Skype. Email. Phone. All of the above. I mean gosh, I’ve been everywhere, again, from Al Kut in Iraq to Baghdad to Libya to Mogadishu. You use whatever you can get your hands on.

I encouraged [maintaining family time] with the people below me. I’d say “Yeah so it’s time to go call your kids. Somebody else will take your post until you get back.” And I think that’s part of the comradery of the military.

The challenges of the military are very hard when it comes to parenting. The demands that are on you are almost never-ending.

I’m a marine so I take this stuff pretty seriously. We’re the buffer between the good people back home and the bad people out there. I don’t want to get into politics and administrations and things like that, but we would like to fight the battles somewhere other than Main Street USA. Yeah, so that’s why we’re there. We, the professional war fighters, get that.

The brotherhood and the sisterhood of the military, especially the marine corps, we do it for each other but really at the end of the day, we do it for you guys. Without getting too emotional and wearing it on my sleeve, which I don’t, but that’s why we do it. We don’t do it for the paycheck that’s for sure.

The dark side of it is you know you’re missing part of your kid’s childhood. And that’s a little depressing. Is that worth it? Is what you’re fighting for worth it? Absolutely. Does it suck in the moment? Absolutely.

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