MOUNT STERLING, Ohio, April 17, 2002 -- When Sonya Schilling learned terrorists had attacked the United States, her first thought was of her 18-year-old son, Joseph Parenti.
Not that Parenti was anywhere near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. He was safe at home in the Ohio farmlands. But in less than a month, he would enter boot camp.
He’d enlisted in the Navy after finishing high school and had qualified to become a nuclear propulsion plant operator for submarines and aircraft carriers.
Sonya Schilling and her son, Seaman Joseph Parenti, pose for family photos during a light January snowfall in their hometown of Mount Sterling, Ohio. Parenti was on a training break and headed off to the Navy Nuclear Power Technology Command in Charleston, S.C., where he hopes to become a nuclear propulsion plant operator. Photo by Susan McKay.
Anchors away for Joe Parenti
Schilling said she was "ecstatic" about her son’s enlistment. "I knew it was absolutely the right thing for him," she said. "At this point, there was no war in sight. We were happy-go-lucky, peaceful Americans, going about our merry lives."
After September 11, however, sending her son off to the uniformed ranks took on new meaning.
’Just a Different Kid’
"I’m very grateful he’s in the Navy and not in the other branches in terms of how he’s going to be protected," she admitted. "If he were in the Marines or the Army, I would be very scared."
Schilling had raised Parenti as a single mother since he was eight months old. After working in Washington, D.C., and in Lubbock, Texas, she returned to her home state of Ohio, where she now works as the director for government sales and procurement at a local company.
"Joseph was a bright kid who got bored in local schools," she explained. "He felt he was in a very unchallenging academic environment, and he just didn’t put forth the effort to get the grades he needed. He’d left himself with few options."
She thought his decision to join the military was a godsend because of the discipline the military instills and the education opportunities it provides. After completing nine weeks of basic training, she said, her son was "just a different kid."
Structure and Discipline
"He came home from boot camp in January, and we sat down and talked," Schilling said. "He told me, ’Mom, you have no idea. I can’t even begin to imagine being in college at this point.’ He was smart enough to know he did not have the self-discipline to do what he needed to do to make the grades on his own. I’m now seeing a new level of maturity coming through.
"He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to shell out that kind of money for their education when they could get it for free, and have that sense of camaraderie and teamwork that he came out of boot camp with."
Not that he’s become an angel or anything, she added. "He’s still the same kid. He got in trouble the other day for missing two minutes of mandatory study." But after thinking about it, she said, he realized it wasn’t a matter of "missing two minutes," but a matter of discipline and reliability.
Parenti, an E-3 firefighter, is now at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command near Charleston, South Carolina, training as an electrician’s mate for 26 weeks. Then he will do another 26 weeks of nuclear power school.
Schilling said the Navy schooling offers more structure than students get in college. "They have mandatory study hours. If you drop below a certain (grade-point average), the number of hours goes up. I know he studies a lot on Saturdays and Sundays as well."
Since the Navy is paying for the specialized training, she said, "they’re not going to let you goof off and not do what you need to do, or you’re out. It’s that simple. They’re just not going to invest that kind of time and money into making you a nuclear specialist and not require that you do what you need to do."
Though her son’s safely tucked away on American soil - at least for the time being, Schilling said, she watches the war news closely. For her, and for other parents with offspring in uniform, she said, the war on terror has hit home.
"Right after September 11, it was all you thought about," she said. "Now, it’s part of our day-to-day thought process. As Americans, we would live for years and years and years in this insulated, protected world where nothing was going to touch us. We are the United States, after all. September 11 dramatically changed our perception of how vulnerable we really are."
Ohio may be far from East and West Coast population centers, she said, but local residents are concerned about terrorist attacks.
"We think about the ability to affect our water supplies -- how unprotected they are. We didn’t think about it before."
Despite the terrorist threat, Schilling said, she is glad her son joined the military.
"I’m so proud of the man he’s turning into. I am proud that he’s making the most of what the Navy offers, and I’m proud that he wants to serve his country."
Source: American Forces Press Service via Veterans News and Information Service