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It happens to parents all the time. You know it’s coming, but you’re never prepared. The day your sweet little baby leaves the nest and ventures out into the big, wide world.

But what if that big wide world isn’t just college or moving into an apartment with friends 15 minutes away? What if the apple of your eye decides he or she wants to don a uniform and join the military?

That’s what is happening to four Clemson area families this summer. Four recent Daniel High School graduates are going to the Air Force Academy or Naval Academy with intentions to commit to those respective branches for five years after graduation. Each of the four is either the youngest or only child in their families, leaving their parents empty nesters by the end of summer.

Jon Harcum’s daughter Ellen will be taking off for Rhode Island and the United States Naval Academy prep school. The prep school is a 10-month program that will help his daughter be as prepared as possible for the actual academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He said he and his wife are very proud of Ellen and her drive to succeed.

She first became interested in joining the military several years ago when her older brother joined the Marines.

“She really became interested when her older brother joined and she was in middle school. She also had two uncles in Vietnam,” Harcum said.

Ellen is the youngest of three for the Harcums and her leaving will mean an empty nest for them. Harcum said it would be an adjustment.

Also wondering how the adjustment will go is the Hazlett family. Alexandra and Thomas Hazlett’s daughter Lauren left for the U.S. Air Force Academy at the end of June. At just 18 years old, it’s a long way for their youngest child to go. Thomas admits to being very weepy over the idea of her leaving and joining the Air Force. Alexandra is quite the opposite.

“I’m giddy, really,” she said through a smile. “She got her dream, and she’s worked so hard. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Their older daughter attends college at Clemson University, so she is close enough to come home to do her laundry, making Lauren’s leaving a little more bittersweet for them.

Daniel Perry will also be making the trek to Colorado Springs after graduating from Daniel High. He lives with his disabled mother and his aunt and uncle. He has two older siblings, who are much older, leaving him as the only child at home for many years.

His aunt, Anne Benson, said Perry has worked extraordinarily hard with his time in the high school JROTC program and she expects nothing less with the Air Force. But it’s his leaving home that will be harder on them. She said he’s been very responsible in caring for his mother and the household.

“We’re excited, but we’re sure going to miss him,” she said. “I hope he remembers everything he’s been taught and always keeps God first.”

Perry left July 17, according to his aunt, and the whole family traveled with him to drop him off in Colorado. Benson said she didn’t think the magnitude of his leaving would hit her until he walked into the building and they didn’t see him again.

Ellen, Daniel, Lauren, and another student, Alex Fitzgerald, have all received appointments and will get a free education worth a combined estimate of $2 million. Their JROTC instructor, Chief Master Sergeant Todd Priesch, said the appointments are a testament to both the school and the families of each of the students. Each one plans to get their education and commit to five years in the Air Force or Navy.

Juanita Bearden knows exactly how these parents are feeling. Her son Donald joined the U.S. Army a year ago. She said while she had mixed feelings about his choice, this was something her son has wanted since he was in middle school. She said the pride she feels for her son outweighed anything else.

“I feel proud most days, but I do miss him terribly,” she said.

Bearden has advice for parents whose children have decided to put on a uniform after high school. She said to pray for them always and constantly remind them and yourself just how important they are and how important faith should be to them.

It’s hard to let go of children as they grow, and doubly hard when they choose a path that could mean putting themselves in danger. We salute all military families and the sacrifices they all make.

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