AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today in our series on men in America, we're looking at something that once defined most men's lives - military service.
MARK PIERCE: My father always taught us growing up that there's service to the community, service to the church and service to the country.
CORNISH: Mark Pierce of Fillmore, Utah served nearly for decades as a Green Beret. Men in his family have served since the Civil War. Mark and his son Jeremy, also a veteran, told me about their family tradition. And for Mark, his career began in 1970.
MARK PIERCE: I knew going into military I'd end up in Vietnam. My mother was sick about it because you know, she had already had one son that only lasted three weeks in Vietnam and had lost his foot. And now here I was joining up to go and mom tried to talk me out of it. But I said you know what? I'm the fourth-generation soldier in the family and I'm going to go because it didn't kill the others and it wouldn't kill me, I didn't think.
CORNISH: You know, all summer we've been talking with men about manhood and their experience and you know, lots of families have a kind of rite of passage - whether it's the first hunting trip or handing over the keys to the car. Was there some moment when you saw Jeremy become a man and was that wrapped up in the military tradition?
M. PIERCE: Yes, it was, because at the time Jeremy joined and I was in Iraq. We were getting rocket fire and I would be talking to Jer about joining up via Skype and then hear the explosions and the sirens, and then I'd have to leave. And his mother - my wife was going Jerry, are you sure you want to do this? Look at what your dad going through. And he said well, it's the family tradition. It's what we have to do.
CORNISH: For Jeremy you know, for your generation - they are far less likely to have an immediate family member in the military. And so for you, was this a kind of benchmark of manhood?
JEREMY PIERCE: So really when I felt that I had grown up and just become a man - it was also kind of a petty, competitive side, where my brother is older than me by about three or four years but you know, I'm larger than he is. I've always been able to wrestle with him. And it was one of those where my brother joined so you know - well, crap, now I have to. I can't let him show me up on that.
CORNISH: Did you guys end up talking to each other about your combat experiences? Is that something that either of you initiated once you were both serving?
M. PIERCE: The main thing I told both my boys was once you make a decision to pull the trigger or to do something that's going to end a life, you make absolutely sure that those conditions under which you do that are clear in your mind, because you'll relive that the rest of your life.
CORNISH: Jeremy, how did you take that advice and you know, was it helpful?
J. PIERCE: It was, and there were a few times when I had to really take that advice to heart and it was one of those you know - my dad is getting to be a grandpa now and he's constantly sprouting off advise. And it was just kind of another one of those like, oh great dad, thanks for telling me now something else. And then once I got into Iraq and there was a few confrontations, and it just kind of seemed to slow the world down.
CORNISH: You heard his voice coming back to you?
J. PIERCE: Yeah, I mean, we had one point where a person was trying to drive a car through our gate and we didn't know if they were like, lost or if they had a car bomb, and it ended up that he was just an innocent civilian who was just trying to turn around in our gate.
CORNISH: For both of you - when you look back on your experience I mean, what did you think it would give you in terms of becoming a man?
M. PIERCE: OK, I'll boil it down to you. In the crucible of combat, you will learn more about yourself and the people around you in five minutes of combat, then you will the rest of your life. It's a tough lesson and a hard way to learn it but I wouldn't trade it for the world.
J. PIERCE: For me, I - when I joined the Army, I was very immature and I thought the being a man was just about you know being able to grow a full beard and having a deep voice. But similar to what my father said, you just to take an unpolished look at yourself and you know exactly how you are as a person, and what you need to do to improve.
CORNISH: What about military service in combat still connects to a male tradition to you? And maybe Mark, I can start with you because you also have a daughter, right?
M. PIERCE: Yes, and because of our family tradition, I always said the boys - you can go into the military if you want. I told my daughter I didn't want her to because I'm 62 and I grew up in the era when women stayed home and raised kids. And you know, we are all subject to the paradigms we learned when we were raised growing up, and that's mine.
CORNISH: Jeremy for you thinking about, as Mark called the paradigm, you were raised in, is your thinking different on this?
J. PIERCE: So actually my wife is in the Army, she just hasn't deployed yet and I'm hoping that she doesn't. But I feel like military service isn't tied to any sort of machismo or masculinity per se - it's just throughout the media it's twisted towards that - where whenever you see anybody in the military, they're usually like you know, Sylvester Stallone or something ridiculous where they're are over-the-top manly.
CORNISH: A but it does feel a little different to have a spouse in the military with the potential for them to deploy and also have a kid, right? I mean, this seems like this experience would be very different than maybe what your dad went through.
J. PIERCE: Yes, it was actually good to have my wife, who is in the service, because I could open up and talk to her more than some of my peers. With them they can kind of fool their wives and be a like, oh that faint mortar fire in the background - that's nothing - that's a training exercise.
CORNISH: Mark - listening to that experience, what are you thinking? Does it feel foreign?
M. PIERCE: Well, for me the hardest thing was my poor wife. You know, we've been married almost 30 years now and so she's been on board. I - by the way I - I'm very proud of my daughter-in-law. You know, she outranks me. I gave her her first salute when she was commissioned, which I thought was terrific. Anyway, my wife - it was tough on her, especially when I would come back from the combat missions because I'd never talk about. I wouldn't and I'd sit there and she'd say what's bothering you? You know, I'd say I can't even talk about.
CORNISH: Jeremy, I know you have a son. Would you want him to join the military?
J. PIERCE: I wouldn't want him to join but if that's his decision, I'd support him in it.
CORNISH: But it really is something to be able to say you have a family tradition going back to the Civil War, and I don't know, Mark, if you know, there'd be some disappointment if that tradition ended here.
M. PIERCE: No - times change - people change. You know, I encourage everyone to try the military or try something to challenge yourself because as I said, back in high school I said, when I'm old I want to have a lot of neat stories to tell and I do. And now both of my sons - now they have some stories to tell. And so hopefully as the grandchildren get older we'll be able to bore them to death at family reunions.
J. PIERCE: You do that now.
CORNISH: Jeremy Pierce and his dad Mark. Jeremy served in the Army for seven years - his dad for 40. Jeremy's son - Mark's grandson, is Malcolm Pierce. He turned one on July 4.