Today is my oldest son's 22nd birthday, and he has been a full-time missionary for just over a year.
Do the math. He left on his mission at the age of 21 - between his sophomore and junior year in college and after a year away from school. It was his choice - totally, and I honor him for the way he made his decision and what he sacrificed to serve. I don't need to detail all of those sacrifices here. Suffice it to say that we are grateful for the support and encouragement he has been given by those who love him and whom he loves, especially since not everyone understood fully why he chose what he chose.
Elder DeGraw is a wonderful missionary for multiple reasons, but, from the perspective of his father, four stand out:
1) It really was something he chose.
We lived in Ohio when he started college - in South Carolina. He was over 500 miles from home, with very little (or no) support at the college he attended. His time there was classic for a college student far from home - at least in the sense that he drifted out of full activity in the LDS Church for a while. When the meetinghouse isn't an easy walk from campus, when there is no family near to accompany, when basically nobody on campus shares your faith - it is easy to drift into inactivity.
By the time the summer following his sophomore year was approaching, he had found a wonderful young woman whom he loves dearly - as do we. It would have been very easy simply to ignore a mission and pursue his education and their relationship. He made a difficult choice, but the fact that he made that choice with his eyes wide open - and that it was truly a choice of competing goods - is part of why he is such a good missionary.
2) He is older, wiser and more experienced than he was at 19.
I understand why the Church allows young men to begin their missionary service at the age of 19. I understand the probability that many who postpone leaving will end up not serving at all. I know leaving at 19 was the right thing for me to do - as was leaving before I started college. I know that serving at 19 is best as the standard for the Church as a whole. Having said all that, the extra two years gave him benefits he simply could not have had without them and made him able to relate to others with whom he might not have related if he had left earlier.
3) He is his own, unique self.
This, above all else, is what I believe contributes to his success as a missionary. He has a unique sense of humor - which I try to blame on his mother, but . . . He has a real love for others and a deep desire to serve and help and connect. He is not fake or contrived or false in any way. He is himself - the person he found largely during the time between his 19th birthday and the day he left for the MTC.
4) He has found out for himself, in serving and teaching others, the power and beauty of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
His discovery permeates the letters he writes home. It shines through the sporadic timing of those letters, although they are no more sporadic than our letters to him - another characteristic I try to blame on his mother. It fills the communications we receive from those he has taught. It is obvious, and it fills his parents with great joy.
I love you, son - and I am SO deeply proud of you. I love you, too, Ashton - and I am SO grateful my son found you.