Trust: an open letter from a sailor to parents

Trust: an open letter from a sailor to parents

Sailor at Sunset_Fleet Sheets


When I read about parents, parents of Sailors, worried about their kids, I think of my own.  And I think of what I’ve seen.

Growing up, there were the stories of Tiger Moms and Helicopter parents. But pre smartphone with social media, wait… pre cell phone, wait wait pre beeper… if you were out of voice range (and I should say, out of backhand range), you were free.  My parents largely didn’t worry about me until I came home with paperwork from school if it came home at all.

Once in the Navy – my parents (as well as my wife) didn’t hear much about things that went on overseas.  Random street crime, the intoxicated service member doing dumb/embarrassing/dangerous/horrible never made the 6 PM news. Things that happen on ships to us essentially stayed on the ship. Flip flops being stolen. Minor fights. Boredom. Fatigue.  Injuries. Broken equipment. New missions. All of it just came and went on the daily shipboard life. By the time you’d sit down to write a letter home – most of it was forgotten. Letters followed a theme: “Doing good, staying out of trouble, ready to be home, Dunn’s feet smell, charged $3, $826, $230, $212.32 on the credit card but it was overseas money so I’m sure it was cheap.”  Shoot, phone calls were 4 bucks a minute back then. At that price, you’d talk like an auctioneer before you racked up a car payment for a phone call. Mom/Dad was just happy to hear a voice. 

But now, now I’m on the other side of three milestones; parenthood (the Kid is an adult now), military service, and naive-adulthood. So when I read what parents of Sailors write online, it hits home.

But life is different for parents now. Harder. More complicated. 

Parents now will know exactly what happens day to day at the speed of a Facebook post.  Sometimes direct, other times via secondary sources. 

The child is a memory of changed diapers, band-aids over skinned knees, hugs for a broken hearts, lectures about foul language in the 4th grade, and screaming matches about weekend curfews. The Child is 18 years of blood, sweat, tears, and love. The Child is your pride. The Child is now a thousand miles away, in a foreign country, working for someone you imagine is something between Major Paine and American Sniper.

What you read online is often the truth, but without the anchor of context.  The text, the Facebook post, the Instagram photo, the third person narrative is often true.

Yes, they’re alone. Yes, something bad happened. Yes, your instinct is to protect them. Yes, you want to right all the wrongs. Yes, you want to reach out to their Chief/Captain/leadership/Congressman/President to talk about their extensive working hours and demeaning work.

But. You’d be wrong too. Mostly.

You see. Joining involves a certain level of maturity and trust. Being a Sailor involves a greater level of maturity and trust.  But growth, growth is the part that develops that maturity and trust. And you mature, grow and trust more and more every day you’re a Sailor.  Some lessons are immediate. Some lessons take days to sink in. Some lessons take years.  Some resurface and become more relevant. Some don’t sink in until you teach them to others. And to be sure, the Navy isn’t made of ships: it’s made of people. We’re human. We make mistakes. But as a collective, the Navy does very well. It learns, it recovers, it presses on. But we’re also very good at bitching. I was very good at bitching in my early years.  I became very good at listening to bitching in my middle years. It was only in later years that I learned to motivate bitching into action; by way of self-analysis, teaching problem solving, or the art of making humor out of less than ideal situations. 

There are a million antidotal stories to relay. Most I wouldn’t tell parents. Many I wouldn’t tell my Kid. Some, I’d rather forget. A lot are stories of great leaders who saw through the BS of a fast-talking, unfocused Kid. A few are stories of peers (Sailors) whom I learned lessons with. A smaller amount are the ones about teaching lessons to our newest Sailors.

But back to parents. When I read online postings, my heart aches.  It aches in the way that experience tells me how it felt to be the Sailor. It aches in the way that having a grown-up Kid puts you in the place you can’t (or shouldn’t) do anything to help them.

Mom, Dad, Family, et al; Trust.  

Trust that training will give them the basic ability to function and succeed in a difficult environment.

Trust that your love and years will give them the basic ability to know right and wrong.

Trust that their new leadership will not just point the way, but mentor them on the path.

Trust that they will, either by their own choice, by design or by order, find leaders who will mentor, guide and train them.

Trust that hardships, to an extent, are part of service, part of the cost of protecting the Nation. 

Trust that there will be hard days, where explanations are insufficient, sleep is minimal, and the next day will likely be tougher. 

Trust they maybe quietly showing you that they’re on their own and surviving, even thriving in the struggle.

Trust that they are probably proud of the hard work, the challenges, the struggles.

Trust that they might not tell you when they screw up royally. Or that, as we did when we were kids, tell you the best side of the story, not the entire story.

Trust, that they are not out there on their own.

Trust that they are, in their own right, and in general, heroes of our Nation.

Your worry, your concern, your doubts and even your outrage are all very real.  They are valid manifestations of your love of your Child.  The fact that your Child serves is not lost on us. At many points, we as leaders are reminded that our newest are somebody’s children. At many points, I realized, these could be my children.  In some ways, they seemed like they were my children. 

And in the most difficult of circumstances, it was trust that made me aware of just how important my role was.

So, my advice to you, parents; trust.


Don’t ever ask what Mojo is, and why mojo comes in a pitcher.


William Karstens
Retired Chief Petty Officer


  • Kerry

    Thank you for your service!! Well said and greatly appreciated! My best to you and your family!

  • Stacey Preite

    Thank you for this insightful letter; I will save it and, I am sure, reread it often!

  • Lori

    I thank you for your beautifully written message to all us parents. And you are right. Trust comes hard, but I found that I had to trust my son and his leaders to do the right thing and to make good decisions. I never realized the sacrifice, until my son. This is a complete life change and it means a completely new beginning for our sailors. I’m proud of my son and proud to be a Navy momma.

  • Karen

    Thank you for your service and your inspirational message.

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