What can you expect when you head to Navy boot camp graduation? Read on to learn more about this exciting weekend.
Make sure to first read Navy Boot Camp Guide for Families to learn what you should be doing while your recruit is at boot camp.
Boot camp graduation is a huge deal because it celebrates the transition of a recruit shedding their old life and starting new as an official service member.
Boot camp is rough, and it is meant to be so they can filter out those that are not ready to become part of the armed forces. Not only are the recruits pushed to their limit, but they are riding on little to no sleep.
They are not able to communicate with anyone from back home except through hand written letters and 2-3 short phone calls.
This is one of the hardest experiences that they will have ever gone through and it is to prepare them for what is to come in their careers.
That is why it is so important as a spouse/fiancée/girlfriend/boyfriend/parent/child/sibling to make sure you are able to go to their graduation ceremony and show them how proud you are of them.
You’ve waited for weeks to see your loved one and to be able to wrap your arms around them. You have survived on hand-written letters and possibly wine (or another vice) to get you this far.
Make sure you take the proper steps to ensure that you are able to afford to go see them graduate.
This is one event you will not want to miss out on. It is such a beautiful ceremony and it is so important to go and show your support for your recruit.
My husband’s boot camp graduation was one of the best days of my life. I got my husband back for a brief period of time and my kids got their father back.
The looks on my sons’ faces as they saw their dad and finally were able to hug him will forever be etched into my memory.
This article focuses on Navy boot camp graduation and traveling to Great Lakes, Illinois. But a lot of the tips can be applied for other branches of the armed forces as well.
Because of the uncertainty of your recruit’s graduation date, I recommend anyone who is flying in to Chicago (or anywhere else) to use Southwest Airlines.
They offer military discounts for dependents and they allow you to transfer your flight date if your recruit’s graduation gets pushed back a week.
Sometimes if your recruit has a hard time passing one of the tests, their graduation date may be changed.
And you won’t have an absolute certain graduation date until the day they pass BattleStations and call you. (Which could be as close as the day before graduation depending on what division they are in!)
But luckily, if you purchase a ticket with Southwest, they won’t charge you to reschedule your flight, if you need to.
To get to Great Lakes, IL, by plane, you can fly into Chicago (Midway), IL (MDL) Airport or Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD). Southwest only offers flights to Midway.
Transportation to Great Lakes, Il.
If you do decide to fly in, you have two options of getting around town. You can use a taxi/ride share service or you can rent a car.
If you decide that you want to get to your hotel by taxi, I highly recommend Sarge’s Taxi. Sarge is an Army veteran with 20 years of active duty service.
He offers discounted rates that include all taxes and tolls, and can pick you up from O’Hare, Midway, or Milwaukee airports.
They do require you to make an online reservation 72 hours in advance for airport pick up. No down payment is necessary at the time of the reservation.
Check out their website for specific prices and which hotels the discounts apply to. Remember, if you split the taxi with another family, you can also split the cost.
When I traveled to Great Lakes, we did not use a taxi service because we planned on being there from Wednesday through Sunday. We wanted to go out and explore Chicago and Great Lakes, so instead we rented a minivan.
There are many hotels to choose from in the Great Lakes area. A popular choice for graduation weekend is the Navy Lodge.
The Navy Lodge offers discounted rooms and is located right around the corner from the base. They offer a shuttle to and from the graduation, as well, so you don’t have to drive or take a taxi.
If you do decide to use the Navy Lodge, you must register under your recruit’s name. I recommend making a reservation with them as soon as you find out your recruit’s graduation date because they book up fast!
They do not require a deposit to hold the room and you won’t be charged until your stay.
Below I will explain how you can make banners for your recruit to hang on your hotel door. The Navy Lodge (and most hotels) will allow you to put your banners on the door as long as you don’t use nails.
Something that families like to do to help celebrate the graduation of their loved one, is to create a door banner for their hotel room. The Navy Lodge welcomes these banners as long as you don’t nail into or damage their doors.
If you are staying at another hotel, check with them before putting a banner up.
You can decorate your banner with your recruit’s last name, anchors, your recruit’s division number, etc. You can also write “Congrats” or “Bravo Zulu.” (This is Navy phrase used to mean “Well done!”)
You can find some door banner ideas on Google. This was ours (with our last name bolded out for privacy).
If you are looking for Navy graduation gifts, a nice one to get your sailor is a challenge coin. Challenge coins are collected by service members for achieving certain accomplishments in the military.
I found a challenge coin of the “ship” (the name of the building my recruit was living in during boot camp) USS Triton. I gave him that as a graduation gift.
Now, the recruits do have the option to purchase their own challenge coins at boot camp. My husband ended up purchasing two challenge coins through RTC.
My husband surprised me with my own challenge coin after graduation, as well.
On one side it says, “Navy Spouse.”
Then on the other side of the coin it reads: “Grateful – Presented to _________. For unselfish, faithful, and devoted partnership. Your support, caring, and understanding made possible our contribution to a grateful nation.”
Here is a similar one on Amazon.
There are other Navy Spouse challenge coins that you can find, such as these beauties on Amazon (swoon!):
(Click on the pictures to purchase your own Navy Spouse challenge coin through Amazon!)
Don’t forget to purchase a graduation card for your loved one! I found this perfect graduation card at Target.
Find more graduation gift ideas: Military graduation gifts
Fun things to do near Great Lakes, IL.
Sarge’s Meet and Greet for Military Families
Sarge of Sarge’s Taxi also hosts a wonderful meet-and-greet dinner the night before graduation for the families of the recruits.
This dinner is free for the families but you can donate to him to help pay for the costs.
The dinner allows you to meet families of other recruits that your sailor has bonded with in boot camp, and those you may have met through your Facebook PIR group.
(More information on those Facebook groups can be found in our previous post, Navy Boot Camp Guide for Families.)
The dinner is buffet style and children are welcome. The dinner includes dancing, a film on BattleStations and boot camp, a slide show of what to expect during graduation weekend, and more.
RSVP for Sarge’s Meet and Greet (this allows them to ensure they have enough food for everyone).
If you are going to be in Chicago for a few days, you should check out the Chicago pass. It gives you over 50% off the normal prices for the top things to see in Chicago.
The admission includes:
The Field Museum
Mosi or 360 Chicago Observation Deck
Adler Planetarium or Art Institute of Chicago.
We definitely took advantage of this pass and were able to keep the kids entertained while we explored the city. Great savings and fun – all in one!
Jelly Belly Candy Factory and Tour
If you want to venture a little north to Wisconsin, you can also tour the Jelly Belly candy factory for free. They will take you on a short train ride around the building, then you can get free samples and shop for candy.
They are located in Pleasant Prairie, WI, so it’s only a short 30 minute drive north from the Navy Lodge.
Due to Covid-19, recruits are only permitted two guests each. (Children ages 2 and under do not count against the guest limit).
Guests over the age of 12 will need to provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination and face masks will be required.
Make sure to have the following items with you on your trip to Great Lakes Naval Base:
- Government issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) for anyone 15+
- Proof of Covid-19 vaccination for anyone 12+
- Face mask or covering
- Car rental agreement
- Car insurance and registration, if driving
- Parking password (this will be sent to you by your recruit), if driving
- Graduation gifts
- Cash for purchasing division photos or items at the Navy Exchange on base
Make sure you have your ID with you, and prepare to arrive early. The best seats fill up fast, and there will be a line to get in.
You will have to enter through the gate to the base. If you are driving, make sure you have your graduation password (this should have been given to you by your sailor), and your driver’s license.
Don’t forget your proof of Covid-19 vaccination and face mask, or else you will not be allowed to enter.
The graduation typically lasts around 3 hours. It is a beautiful ceremony and I recommend bringing a camera to video tape it, as well as to take photos. These are memories you will want to capture on film.
The seating is bleachers and may be uncomfortable. I did not wear heels at graduation.
Because of the bleachers, and the long walk to the NEX after the ceremony was over, I preferred to opt for flats. I brought my heels in the car to change into after we left the base.
You can stream the graduation live every Friday morning for those who cannot travel to the ceremony.
After the ceremony is over, the sailors will have “liberty.” This means they can come out to meet their families, and take a break from their duties.
You may want someone to record those moments of seeing them again! Videotaping your reunion with your sailor is a beautiful memory to look back.
After finally reuniting and saying “hello” to your sailor, they will have to leave to sign out for the afternoon.
While you are waiting for them to return or when they get back, you can visit the NEX (more below), and take them to lunch. They will be able to spend the rest of the day with you until their curfew.
At the end of graduation, you will have the opportunity to purchase your sailor’s graduation pictures at the NEX. They will have photos taken by themselves, as well as with their division.
They can pay for them through their own account during boot camp, or you can purchase them after the graduation.
Your recruit’s division will also design an unique T-shirt that they will be able to purchase at boot camp. So if you share a bank account (with their Navy account), expect to see these expenses coming out of it because they likely will purchase these t-shirts and the graduation pictures at the end of boot camp.
My husband purchased t-shirts and sweatshirts for us and our family members.
You can also purchase division apparel for up to six months after graduation.
After graduation, you will also be able to shop at the NEX (Navy Exchange). They will have all kinds of Navy gear – hats, t-shirts, license plates, key chains, picture frames, and more.
Make sure to bring extra money to pick up a “Navy Mom/Dad/Wife/Husband” T-shirt and to take advantage of their tax-free shopping.
After graduation, you can visit the NEX on base, and take your sailor to lunch.
While there are many things I listed above to do in Chicago, you may want to stay close to the base. Your sailor will have a curfew for that evening and can get in a lot of trouble if they are late.
We went to lunch nearby, and then walked around the local mall for a while. After that we took our sailor back to the hotel room, where he was able to see the banner we had put up to celebrate him.
They may want to rest and take a nap, or just hang out in the hotel room. They have been going non-stop for 8+ weeks and may not want to do much of anything but relax.
If your sailor is flying out for A school on Sunday, then you can visit the places I listed above on Saturday with them. This will give you all a chance to explore Chicago together.
But keep in mind that if you do wish to visit Chicago on your trip, your sailor might not be able to join you.
If they are leaving for school on Saturday, they will not have time to explore. And your sailor will not know which flight they are on until graduation weekend.
Your Sailor’s Duty Station & Orders
My husband found out his orders for his first duty station on the day of his graduation. This is not the normal for every sailor.
It depends on how long your A-school program is. My husband’s school was only 5 weeks long.
So on the day of graduation, he received his hard copy orders of his first duty station for after school.
For other sailors who have longer schools, they might not find out until the end of their schooling.
Leaving for A School
Your sailors will have to go back to the barracks (their rooms) by curfew the night of graduation. They will fly to A-school on Saturday or Sunday.
For sailors that are flying to A-school on Sunday, they will get to spend Saturday with their families, as well.
They will fly out of two airports: Midway and O’Hare. They tend to travel to the airport in groups.
My husband’s flight was on Saturday evening, but he left for the airport with the group early Saturday morning. (He was there by 3:00 A.M. even though his flight was at 5:00 P.M.)
They are not allowed to have their phones or personal items at the barracks.
You are allowed to bring their phone, phone charger, laptops, iPads, extra clothes, etc. to the airport to meet them before their flight. (Keep in mind that they will have limited space in their bags, though.)
You can get a special pass to stay with your sailor at the airport, but you must get there early because they only give out a limited number of them.
We got there at almost 4:00 am and were able to spend the day at the airport with our sailor. My husband’s flight didn’t leave until 5:00 P.M. that evening.
What happens at A-school?
If your sailor’s school is 6 months or longer, the Navy will move his/her family with them. (If your sailor has dependents – wife/husband and/or kids).
My husband’s school only lasted 5 weeks, so we stayed where we were.
They had a graduation ceremony at the end of school, but it was much smaller. We didn’t attend.
During A-school, they will have their phones and you will be able to communicate with them regularly. We were able to text throughout the day and talk on the phone and Face-time every night.
While your sailor is at A-school, the BAH (if they are eligible and have dependents) will be based on the spouse’s location. We were in FL, so the BAH was based upon the city we were living in.
He did not receive BAS in his pay, because he was eating at the galley on base. So the BAS covered his meals at school.
What happens after A-School?
After A-school, the Navy will fly your sailor home for their two week leave. (15 days).
During this time, your sailor can choose to work for a local recruiter (RAP duty – recruiter assistance program) for a week to eliminate 5 of their leave days from counting against them.
So instead of using 15 leave days, they will have only used 10 days.
On-base/Off-base Military Housing at your Duty Station
If your sailor is single and under a certain rank, he/she will be required to live on base in the barracks. If your sailor has dependents, then they qualify for BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) and can live on or off base.
Base housing for families is available at most bases. The waiting list can be quick or can take months.
We got on the list a month prior to moving (starting at #16), and never got higher than #13 by the time my husband moved.
My husband moved to our first duty station on his own because he had to report there sooner than expected, and we followed him about a week later. (We only moved about four hours from our hometown).
We used militarybyowner.com to find our house. We were able to find a great house for a reduced price that was being rented by a vet.
The website lists houses for rent and sale by other military members/vets. Many of the houses have reduced or zero dollar deposits required for moving in.
You can also elect to have your rent come out of your paycheck as an allotment and go straight to your landlord. We don’t even see our rent money in my husband’s pay, instead it goes straight to the landlord.
The base housing in the location we are at is very nice and fairly new. I suggest looking around to see what works for you and your family before deciding to live on or off base.
Some families may be able to save money by living off base. When you live on base, they take the entire BAH amount to cover your housing expenses (rent, water, garbage, electric).
When you live off base, you may be able to find a place under the BAH limit and pocket some of the extra money.
Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions that I have not answered and may be able to help you with! Good luck and welcome to the Military family life!