Photo: Milly Calderon (left) and daughter, Rita Caruso
At 4’11”, Milly Calderon is small in stature and great in spirit. A beloved member of the Carrot-Top family, Milly has been serving Carrot-Top Industries for almost 12 years! Her famous chicken wings and broccoli casserole are Carrot-Top family favorites, and she’s Carrot-Top’s designated “breakfast chef” at companywide celebrations. It would be accurate to say that Milly is our honorary “grandmother”. Milly is also a real grandmother to five grandchildren—one of who recently joined the Army Reserves.
Seeing a child off—whether it’s away to college, out into the “real world” or off to the military— can be one of the most challenging times in a parent’s life. For military parents, the range of emotions involved with sending a child away can be vast and complicated.
When we learned that Milly was preparing to send her only granddaughter away to boot camp, we knew we wanted to get involved. We knew it would be important to acknowledge her mix of emotions—from the pride to the struggle—and share her story with others. So, we scheduled a chat with Milly and her daughter, Rita Caruso, to learn about their experience sending their only granddaughter and daughter, respectively, away to boot camp.
Straight Out of High School
Lexi Romano-Caruso, Milly’s 18-year-old granddaughter, grew up in Burlington, NC where she excelled as an honor student and soccer player. “She’s always been competitive by nature,” said Lexi’s mother, Rita. “She always wanted to join the military—ever since she was little. First, she wanted to be a doctor, so she took health classes and anatomy in high school and volunteered at a local rest home to get experience. She always said college would be ‘boring’, and that the Army would be more of a challenge than just doing schoolwork,” said Rita.
Lexi joined the Army Reserves in her senior year of high school when she was just 17 years old. After she was sworn in, she was assigned to a local unit that would serve as home base. She ended up at an ambulance unit in Whitsett, NC—just a few miles from her hometown of Burlington. “As soon as she was sworn-in the unit Sergeant immediately called her and shared a calendar of events for unit activities,” said Rita. However, Lexi was still too young (at least according to her mother) to attend her unit’s overnight orientation trips to Jacksonville and Wisconsin. “I didn’t want her to miss school,” she said.
So, it wasn’t until after graduation day that Lexi fully “flew the coop”. In the meantime, she prepared for boot camp by meeting up with her unit on Wednesdays for a group run. The weekly meetings allowed her to get to know some of the new recruits who would be joining her at basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, MO in the coming months.
Part of being a new military recruit is taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test, also known as the ASVAB. The ASVAB is a timed multi-aptitude test that determines how qualified a recruit is for certain military occupational specialties and enlistment bonuses. A high score improves a recruit’s chances of getting the specialty or job he or she wants. “Lexi scored so high on her ASVAB that she was given the choice of any job she wanted. She chose combat medic,” said Rita, shaking her head, smiling with both pride and disbelief in her eyes.
“Stalking” a Soldier
Lexi takes after her grandmother, Milly, in more ways than one. Her 4’ 11” stature earned her the nickname, “Mighty Mouse” amongst her basic training peers. The “Mighty Mouse” nickname might have also had something to do with Lexi’s quiet, stoic nature.
Now anyone who knows Milly knows that she is anything but quiet. According to Milly, Lexi was always a quiet kid. But after bootcamp, something changed. “She was never a big talker before the military,” said Milly, “But when we spent time with her [after boot camp]—my god, did she let that go! She was laughing, telling stories…she has opened up a lot…made a lot of friends. The military has changed her.”
Or, maybe it was there all along and just needed some coaxing out of her.
Either way, it’s easy to see that Milly is very proud of the close bond she and her granddaughter share. During Lexi’s time away at basic training, both Milly and Rita found it difficult to have limited communication with her.
At the beginning of basic training, she didn’t have phone privileges, so Milly and Rita would write her letters. “I guess you could say I’m a worrisome person,” said Rita. “The biggest sacrifice was letting my baby go.” One source of comfort for Rita was the fact that Lexi was in a safe place. “I knew she’d be taken care of. She’d get fed, have a roof over her head,” she said. After two weeks, Lexi’s boot camp platoon, “The Honey Badgers” regained telephone privileges, and the line of communication opened up a bit more. It also didn’t hurt that Lexi fully enjoyed the boot camp experience. “She didn’t cry; she didn’t mind the Drill Sergeants yelling at her,” said Rita, “So that made it easier for me.”
Rita and Milly were also appreciative of the Facebook page for the “Echo 35th Honey Badgers” where they could go to see photos of the daily activities going down at boot camp. The page became a parent support group of sorts— on social media. “We were stalking that page all the time,” said Milly. “We would find photos and comb through them to find her in the group.”
One photo in particular—the one with Lexi holding a rifle that looks to be more than half her size— is Milly’s favorite. There’s a story behind that photo, too. According to Rita and Milly, Lexi made 20 out of 40 target shots her first time shooting. When asked about the photo—a true testament to her competitive nature—Lexi said, “I didn’t know they were counting because if I did, I would have made my 40.” And at the next shooting test, she did.
A Bright Future Ahead
Milly and Rita attended Lexi’s basic training graduation in September and got to spend some time with her before sending her off to her next station at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. They won’t get to see her again until Christmas, but they are grateful for phones and Instagram. “Seeing photos of her smiling with friends makes it so much better. As long as she’s there having fun, that’s all I care about,” said Rita.
As for Milly, “I miss having her around for our holiday traditions. We would always go Black Friday shopping every year since she was very little. I would take her to breakfast and buy her something for getting up so early. I hope I can talk to her on that day. Hopefully, we can do it next year.”
Meanwhile, they will keep up with her via text and social media.
As for Lexi’s future in the military, Rita is confident she will figure it out. She’s already taken on a leadership role in her platoon as Squad Leader and Platoon Leader. Although her current plans are to go to college, Rita believes, “She might change her mind and stay in. She wants to be a Sergeant one day.” She also wants to go to Firefighter’s school to be a fireman EMT and continue on to become a paramedic.”
One thing is certain no matter the path she chooses. She has already built a solid foundation in the Army Reserves. Even if she were to choose to leave tomorrow, she would have an EMT certification—not to mention, the experiences that have already begun to shape her into a stronger, better version of herself. “She found her calling,” said Milly.
Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, sibling, or another family member of military personnel, we recognize that service is a sacrifice that not only affects those enlisted, but also those close to the service member. This Veterans Day—and all year long—we thank you for your sacrifice.
About the Author
Jenny Jolly | [email protected]
Carrot-Top Staff Writer, Jenny Jolly, has been blogging and writing for businesses since 2008. A self-proclaimed "Army brat", Jolly grew up on military bases overseas before settling back in her family's home state of North Carolina. "Growing up a bi-cultural American has taught me to appreciate the diversity of our great nation. Having experienced other cultures firsthand has also given me valuable perspective on what it means to be American—to love your country, to value your rights and freedoms, and to fully embrace the ideal of the American Dream," she said. It is her honor to serve Carrot-Top Industries in the shared goal of providing American-made U.S. flags and patriotic, special event, and custom-made products to military institutions, service member families, government agencies, schools, businesses, and individuals across the United States.