Anyone who thinks that all happy families are alike has probably never met Laurinburg's Bill and Terry Parker.
“Some families talk about what their lowest golf score is or I caught this fish,” said Joseph Parker, the oldest of the Parker family's four children. “We literally will sit here and argue about how you didn't have it bad because you were in this part of Iraq or you didn't have it bad because you were in Kuwait.”
Bill Parker, a Vietnam veteran and Scotland County native, retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in 1994 after 27 years of service that took him to Australia, Korea, and Germany as well as a slew of stateside assignments. Dissatisfied with the job market for a nurse while stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado, his wife Terry joined the Army's medical corps in the late 1970s.
That decision, coupled with the birth of Joe soon after, was the beginning of a small Army dynasty, though no one knew it then. Terry herself rose to the rank of colonel, and Joe and the Parkers' next two children, Graham and Katie, all grew up to enroll in their colleges' ROTC programs and enter the Army upon graduation.
“Part of the reason I joined was I wanted to get up and travel and do certain things,” Joe said. “Then 9/11 happened my senior year and everyone started deploying. As it turned out, I did my six months of basic officer school right after I graduated in 2002 and then I went to Ft. Hood, Texas and I was there for about eight years.”
In those eight years, Joe, now a major in the quartermaster corps of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, deployed to Iraq three times. He describes the job as “a lot of planning.”
“We take strategic objectives and we develop ways to have whatever strategic guidance is planned out from the president or from the secretary of defense and we look for ways of implementing it at the tactical level,” Joe said. “So when soldiers are going to the field or going to deploy we come up with campaign plans and training plans.”
Two weeks ago, Joe returned from his first deployment to Afghanistan. Currently stationed at Ft. Stewart, Ga., he returned to Laurinburg this past weekend to meet his parents, sister, and youngest brother John at the family's home for a Parker-Beacham family reunion.
Graham Parker is currently serving in Belgium with NATO.
Capt. Katie Parker Ferretti has been deployed twice and is currently stationed at Ft. Lee, Va. Her husband, Capt. Matt Ferretti, is a company commander at Ft. Bragg. Matt graduated from Norwich University, a Vermont military college, and the two met at officer school after graduation.
“In a nutshell I do logistics, but where I work now is for the chief of transportation,” Katie said. “I work at strategic level operations planning personnel: what we want the officer corps of individuals to look like as well as equipment and force management. My husband is at Ft. Bragg, so we just live on 95. We wish that there were some sort of point system where you can accumulate miles and get some kind of kickback.”
Joe, Graham, and Katie all graduated from Scotland High School, with Joe attending Wake Forest University, Graham attending N.C. State, and Katie selecting a school while still harboring questions about her future.
“I chose between West Point and PC but Mom wouldn't let me take any other college choices,” she said. “Two months before I was like, I have to go to college somewhere. What's this school in South Carolina? Presbyterian College? Sounds great. What am I doing? The Army? I'll figure it out later.”
Joe, on the other hand, was born with Army hardwired in his brain, and was accepted to Wake Forest early in his senior year of high school.
“I found a book that I made when I was in second grade that asked what do you want to be,” he said. “I put that I wanted to be a comedian or an Army officer. I don't know how the comedian thing worked out.”
“I went in with the attitude and the mindset that I was doing my four years active and then I was going to get out,” Katie said. “Well I'm near seven now and still loving what I do. I actually met my husband in my school when we first graduated college, so I got a husband out of it.”
A certain level of irreverence when it comes to the family's choice of vocation is apparently a hereditary trait.
“No one has ever grown up in a family like this,” Matt Ferretti said of his in-laws. “It's totally unique in all that word encompasses.”
Joe's wife Danielle, who was a captain in the transportation corps before leaving the Army in 2009, first met Terry Parker in Baghdad while still only a casual acquaintance of Joe's.
“We were eating in the dining facility and the battalion commander called and told me that I needed to give Col. Parker a ride back to her FOB because everybody else had left. There she was with her Kevlar on and her body armor kind of open and I think she didn't know what to do with her weapon,” Danielle recalled. “It was dark, so he asked me to give her a ride back so she wasn't walking across as a female in the dark across the Green Zone in Baghdad by herself. So I gave her a ride and I let her sit in the passenger seat of the Humvee and my driver chauffeured her back.”
That Army connection made Danielle an honorary Parker long before she married Joe.
“He was nervous to introduce me to his family because I had a bellybutton ring and a tattoo and I'm a Yankee, so I ended up being like I remember giving you a ride, so that was my in to the family,” she said.
Since his graduation from Wake Forest in 2002, Joe said that he and his siblings have all been in the same place on only four or five occasions.
“I was leaving Iraq as they were coming in, so we'd meet up in Kuwait,” he said. “I flew down from Iraq to see Katie's promotion and Graham's promotion. I ran into Graham once in northern Iraq, in Balad, as he was coming through. Mom and I were in Baghdad at the same time for like two months. You just kind of hang out when you get a chance.”
“We saw each other in Iraq quite frequently,” Katie added. “We actually like each other, so when we can, we congregate.”
Katie and Matt were married this spring, while Joe was still in Afghanistan. But a decade of being a transatlantic family left them with plenty of resources for attendance in spirit.
“Her wedding, she got married in April and I was in Afghanistan, so they FaceTimed me in,” Joe said. “So I'm sitting there watching as much of the wedding as I can on FaceTime.”
As a substitute for the man himself, the family substituted a cardboard facsimile - complete with feet.
“I was in some pictures,” he said. “They did some pretty horrible things to me.”
The Parkers' wartime experiences, many of then mutual, tend to be remembered with more insouciance than gory cinematic detail.
“It's what the Parkers do in their spare time, they tell war stories,” said Danielle. “Each one has a better one than the other one. That's why we keep telling them and keep telling them.”
“Do you want me to tell the war story of how you blew up a $200,000 piece of government equipment,” Joe asked.
“I was proving a point,” Danielle retorted. “Nobody else was doing their transportation duties over there.”
Regardless of geography, the Parkers have proven that some elements of the parent-child relationship are simply immutable.
“I tell people it doesn't matter how old your kids are, no matter where you are, if they ever borrow your car, you're always going to get it back on empty, and that includes in a war zone,” Terry said.
Rules of engagement
Serving alongside each other in Baghdad, Terry and Joe took advantage of the occasional opportunity to embarrass the other.
“She lived in the embassy, which is where the ambassador lived, all the bigwigs, state department, they had good food, they had internet,” Joe recalled. “The rest of us did not live so well. I shared a room with six people.”
“You took me upstairs and there was no roof on part of it because it had been bombed out, and they weren't fixing it because that is now where the present embassy is,” Terry said.
“Remember on TV when you saw the looters,” John interjected. “She got a couple rugs.”
Terry continued, unfazed.
“I had an up-armored Suburban.”
“It was a Durango, mom,” Joe chimed in with one of his frequent corrections to detail.
“It was white,” Terry said. “And I would go down to see him at his FOB, and he did not like for me to come and see him, I don't know why.”
“I was a lieutenant platoon leader and she was a full-bird colonel, O-6, so she outranked anybody on my FOB by like two ranks.”
“So when I would come and the little private would come out from behind sandbags, but I never told them I was his mother,” said Terry. “I would say I'm here to see Lieutenant Parker, and he would look at my nametag and he would say are you related to him ma'am, and I would say no, it's just a common name. He'd pick up the radio, I remember this, and say Pacer One, your mom's here, she wants to know if you brushed your teeth.”
Though serving in the vicinity of his mother, Joe maintained his professionalism to a degree that surprised even her. At one point, when Terry was traveling in a convoy commanded by Joe, the son decided to conduct a refresher course in the proper handling of a machine gun.
As in any family fable, the details become irrelevant in the telling, but the moral rings through regardless.
“You didn't have an M-16,” Joe said. “I never saw you with an M-16.”
“I did have an M-16 for about four months,” Terry replied. “I got rid of that thing, it was heavy.”
“Wasn't it like a bazooka,” Katie asked.
“Here's the deal - I was in a tank, you were in a Humvee behind my tank, and you didn't have an M-16,” Joe said.
“He said ma'am, your field of fire is the right rear window, and I had my M-16 hanging out the window, because this is when Route Irish was so dangerous,” Terry said. “I will give you this, this is probably true, I was really kind of engrossed in what they were doing because they were so professional, and I'm thinking I can't believe my son is so professional. They were on the radio talking to all the vehicles and I was leaning over trying to see what all they were doing, and twice he said ma'am your field of fire is the right rear window. It was starting to get on my nerves because he'd said that to me already. He's sitting right in front of me and the little E-4 driver is over here and I'm in the back, and he said it one more time and that made me mad.
“I said don't tell me again how to shoot my machine gun; I know how to do it. He said well if you have to fire you're going to blow my brains out because you're so busy minding my business.”
Terry also learned that, as children will return a Humvee with an empty fuel tank, they will also hold minor arguments even in the face of more significant issues.
“I remember when Graham would call me because she went out on convoy and he was all mad because he didn't think she was supposed to be out on a dangerous convoy,” she recalled. “I'm sitting there like tell me you aren't fighting in Kuwait.”
“He was just mad because you were getting more combat time than he was,” Joe confided to his sister.
The Parker legacy
Though three out of four children of two Army colonels entering the Army themselves - John works in Raleigh for a software company - may seem an unlikely scenario, the “Parkerkinder,” as Katie has termed herself and her brothers, now follow the military path because of their faith in it.
“ROTC helped to educate all of them, and we're very thankful for that, but the decision to stay beyond their initial obligation was strictly theirs,” Bill Parker said.
Joe contrasted the young recruits serving abroad with their peers in the U.S. who graduate from high school aimless and without goals.
“It is genuinely amazing what you can see a high school graduate do nowadays,” he said. “Mom jokes about the E-4 driver, but you drive through Laurinburg or any small town and you see folks not making a whole lot of their lives. On the other side you see these kids that are 17, 18 years old who have taken that leap of faith and joined the military and genuinely are capable of performing at a much higher level just by virtue of what they're doing. They may not have even known they could do it, but by the position they're put in, from the officer's perspective, the stuff that we ask our junior enlisted and NCOs to do is pretty substantial.”
Katie said that she and Matt, once stationed together, hope to continue the Army journey well into the future.
“I don't know whether I'm brainwashed, but I have the two, two and a half year itch,” she said. “I'm ready to go somewhere new and experience it because there aren't many jobs that afford you the opportunity to travel. If we only do this for 20 years and then after that stay in one place for the rest of our lives, until then we want to travel as much as possible and we'd rather not stay in the same place or go to the same place twice.
“There's too much to see and too much to do to not take advantage of it.”