Dear Son,

I’m writing this letter as you approach your 17th birthday.

During the past year you’ve shared with your mother and me your desire to become a U.S. Marine. I’m not sure of all your reasons, but as America prepares to honor its veterans on Memorial Day, I’d like you to be particularly mindful of three sobering military traditions.

The first tradition is the oath of office. You will “. . . solemnly swear to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the president of the United States of America, and the orders of officers appointed over me.”

Your promise to “bear true faith” isn’t just a handy cliché in which you promise to cheer for your team. Nor is it just a promise that you won’t sell out to the enemy. It means you believe in your country’s ability to do the right thing and, because you believe that, you are promising to do whatever you are legally ordered to do.

While the oath is primary, there remains only one commitment you must place above it. It is your commitment to serve God.

Your oath to your country is not the same as your commitment to God. It’s tricky, because to merge these oaths is to risk assuming the characteristics of history’s most fanatical theocracies. Instead, your commitment to God must remain separate. Only then will God’s love and concern for all the world’s people remain apparent in your heart.

Not to worry, son, the tradition of the oath is sobering, but not something to be feared. I’m confident you will take it with honor.

However, Memorial Day is a bone-chilling reminder of another tradition, the tradition of the uniformed team whose job it is to knock on doors bearing the darkest nightmare of the military family.

It’s the tradition I’ve been present for many times, but thankfully have never been on the receiving end of the words, “We regret to inform you that your son was killed in action while serving in . . .”

I’m not going to lie to you, son, it would be a day when my deepest faith would be put to the test. A day in which I’d be wrestling with my own covenant with God.

And finally comes the tradition, hopefully many decades from now, when a very stiff color guard commander accepts a folded flag from his detail and presents it to your family. They hear the words, “On behalf of the president of the United States, the commandant of the Marine Corps and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for Gunnery Sgt. Burkes’ service to country and Corps. God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America.”

My prayer for you, son, is you will keep all the things I’ve shared with you sober and reverent in your mind as you contemplate what it might be like decades from now when we honor your commitment, along with the millions of others who have held true to these traditions. Love, Your Dad