I read the Facebook post and froze. “Today, our mid wrapped up what has been a very long, painful decision to process out of the Academy.”
Some Mids leave because of disciplinary issues. That wasn’t her son. Some Mids leave because of physical problems and injuries. That wasn’t her son. Her son is an outstanding student. Her son excelled, earning a high leadership position within his company.
And when the Class of 2020 gathered to sign their 2 for 7s, he wasn’t there. He was home.
As someone who’s inside the USNA “bubble,” I know that most folks outside really don’t understand the struggles the Mids endure. I believe most folks figure, “they’re in the Naval Academy and it’s awesome.” And much of it is. But it’s not easy. And despite all that leads up to entering the Academy, some learn it is not their path.
I reached out to this friend because I believed her son’s story could help other families, possibly other Mids. While her son declined to discuss it, he gave his mother the green light to share the story and her feelings. And rather than me getting in the way, I figure I’ll let her do most of the talking.
For starters, I asked her what led her son’s journey to the Academy looked like. Here’s what she shared:
“Neither my husband nor I were in the military. Our closest connections were a niece we helped raise who served in Iraq and some close friends who had served. At some point early in high school, our son decided that the most challenging, and honorable, place to be was a military academy. He made it his goal to get there, whether we had any connections or not. He did that through working hard academically, as well as demonstrating great maturity and breadth of interest.”
“He was never a Boy Scout, a young Marine, junior ROTC, or anything like that. He was an apprentice falconer when he was young (also of his own accord – he is very driven), and I suspect he has always wanted to fly but never wanted us to have to pay for him to learn. I grew up very poor, and I think he has always been cognizant of any type of financial ‘burden’ he might place on his Dad and I, even though something like flight lessons would have been within reach. Somewhere in there was his decision – one that sought an honorable direction, one that sought a challenge, one he thought did create a ‘burden’ for us, and one that fulfilled some sort of dream, like flying. I don’t know that there was ever really one thing.”
We’ve all heard stories similar to that – each Midshipman has their own path to Annapolis and this young man had found his. That made sense, but I asked her about Plebe Summer and Plebe Year. Did she see any warning signs that this was not his path?
“Plebe Summer and Plebe Year were very much a roller coaster. I think just about everyone sees warning signs – and I could completely relate when Grant Vermeer shared his plebe letter home that said ‘Save me, Mom!’ We never heard anything quite that direct – he continued to work hard to ‘succeed’ – but we knew that he was tucking things away. He did fantastic in terms of academics and career-related tests, so he rated music and movies and other privileges early. He used that opportunity to be able to put his headphones in and block out the world. He always did need time by himself to recharge, and that definitely is not something that is afforded the Midshipmen. Being alone is a rarity. So he would plug in and find his solitude in books.”
“He has also always been our outdoorsman, but at the Academy, there were days when he didn’t see the outside of a building – or so it sounded. He did find some good friends but was pretty disillusioned when he realized that many Midshipmen didn’t hold the honor code in as high regard as he did. I’m not completely sure how he handled that, but I know it disappointed him.”
Side note: This is something I’ve heard from several Mids and parents. The overwhelming majority of Midshipmen take the Honor Code very seriously and the outside world expects that each member of the Brigade live honorably. Truth is, though, some just don’t. Some Mids can shrug that off. Others cannot.
“We tried to get him home or get to him as regularly as we could, knowing that he needed to be able to disconnect from the Academy now and then. Financially, that is not an option all parents have.”
I’ve mentioned before that I know I am spoiled because we live so close to Annapolis – it’s an easy 3-hour drive. It’s one of the reasons I believe so firmly in the “Your Mid Is My Mid” philosophy. Every time I go to the Academy, I bring something for another Mid, because I know if I lived a distance away, I’d want someone to do that for my Mid.
Her son emerged from Plebe Year and jumped into his Youngster summer and academic year. With all that going on, I asked her to talk about the decision-making process, in particular from her point of view as a parent.
“I cannot tell you just how difficult this decision must have been for him. He struggled with it SO strongly 2/C summer. Ultimately, what became important to us was that he actually MAKE a decision. We were concerned that he would stay ‘by default’ (not really making a decision, but putting it off until it was time to sign papers, which he would definitely have done at that point). If he didn’t actually choose, we were concerned that he would continue to struggle with whether or not what he was doing was the right thing, rather than moving forward, full speed ahead, committed to the path he had chosen. Early summer, we were pretty sure he was committed to staying, but the closer we got to the 2 for 7 signing (which is more like 2 for 14 if you go the aviation route), the more open he was about this very difficult decision.”
“Regardless of what was happening, we did pray for him A LOT – and did a few practical things in case he left or was separated due to illness or injury. We kept him on our medical insurance. I filed a FAFSA for him each year so he would have other schooling options immediately available (many university scholarships are not awarded unless you have filed).”
“As I look back, there are a couple of other things I think influenced his decision. He spent his cruise last summer with Pacific Fleet, and while he was thankful for the experience, it left him uncertain about whether he wanted to serve as an SWO. His preferred line of service seemed to be aviation, but he had some concerns about the length of commitment and the knowledge that with a minor physical issue, coupled with good grades, he would be just as likely to end up subs. I think that he realized over time there that he really did need to be outside more, so subs kept dropping lower on his service preference list.”
“He also has three brothers. His older brother got married this year, and the two younger than him have changed a great deal since he left home. I think missing some of those changes was more difficult for him than he anticipated. Finally, he himself did say that he was so focused on the prestige and the challenge that he may have missed the reality of the (intangible) costs of going to the Academy, especially with our family being very far away. I am sure there is much more to it than that, but he is a very private person, and hasn’t shared everything (which is okay with me).”
Side note: I remember what a challenge it was to get our Mid to my niece’s wedding and realizing that he would be missing a lot of things we could no longer take for granted.
“When the decision was made and the paperwork underway, he did interviews with all level of personnel at the Academy, and while they all expressed disappointment that he was leaving, they were surprisingly understanding and supportive. On his paperwork, he continues to be a recommended officer candidate, by his request.”
“While I’m not sure we are qualified to speak into other families’ situations (they are all very different), the few things I would say are these:
- All those wonderful things that people are saying about their kids doing great is true! Remember, though, that there are others struggling – they’re just afraid to say anything for fear of their Mids being impacted. You are not alone!
- There really are great resources at the Academy to help Mids get through this – the chaplains are really good. Our mid waited until the end to talk to them, but they were still helpful!
- Your kid is a GREAT kid! Seriously – they are at the most challenging school in the nation. Being at USNA is way different than being at any college (or another academy 😉 )
- Sometimes, if you are like me, you have to make a conscious decision for your mama heart to get off the roller coaster.
- You Mid will have to make a decision; otherwise, they won’t be committed one way or the other. Until they do, they should continue to do their best.
- This is a big decision, but it is still just one decision. They will be okay. If you are afraid they won’t, try to change your perspective and see if that helps.”
I re-read that section about three times. Then I had to walk away. I can only hope to have the strength this Mid-mom displayed if my Mid is ever in that position.
I also asked her about a side effect of a Midshipman leaving the Academy, namely, leaving life as an Academy parent … she hit on it in her Facebook post – it’s not just your son/daughter who goes to the Academy, it’s really the whole family. I think that’s something “outsiders” just don’t understand.
“This is probably the most shocking part of being a Midshipman’s parent – I don’t know if it is unique to 2020 or not! Sometimes I wonder … this is a pretty spectacular group of people! There is a change in pride and protectiveness that comes along with knowing that, while your kid is at the Academy, there is every chance that they could be pulled out and sent on active duty at any time. There’s a chance that they could be on training and have their destroyer hit a cargo ship. You become completely aware that every sailor, every soldier, is someone’s child, someone’s family member. It’s not just the parents that feel this way – the kids get it, too. My 15-year-old was awestruck not long ago when we saw General Mattis at our local BBQ place and Farmers’ Market. I’m not sure most 15-year-olds know what the Secretary of Defense is, let alone who it is. They wear their Navy gear with pride, they stand when veterans pass, and they pay attention to what is happening in our country.”
“The biggest thing that you know is that your Mid is never, ever without a parent, no matter how far away you are. (Of course, the Mid has to be a willing recipient of that.) You know that doors are open to receive you, all across the country. I now have friends all over the country, ranging from the northwest to the south, the Bible belt, and the east coast.”
All I could think of after that was, “Amen” and … well, what’s next?
“Our mid has already enrolled in the university he would have attended had he not gone to USNA. He is looking at three more years to complete a double major in Computer Science and Honors English (much to his chagrin – he would prefer to be done in two). He has wondered what disciplinary action will be taken if he misses part of his college orientation to attend a performance by one of his brothers (None, of course). I wonder how he will feel about having to choose what to wear every day 😀 . He is reconnecting with old friends (ones that he neglected a bit when he was so focused on making it into the Academy) and building up the faith he didn’t make time to nurture while he was gone. We are spending time together as a family, today sighting in hunting rifles that we thought might sit idle for many years while he was gone. He is trying to help his younger brothers think through big decisions, like where to go to college and what to major in. Sometimes I think they listen better to his guidance! He is breathing in the Northwest air and becoming reacquainted with life back at the farm. He seems happy.”
As with most stories, many chapters left to be written – for the whole family. Take what you will out of this mom’s sage words. I’m thankful – so very, very thankful – that not only did her Mid give her the OK to share, but that she did so and did it so openly. For me, it reinforces that it is not always as simple as it seems. We are a big USNA family and an even bigger Navy family and, like all families, we often must make difficult decisions. And as family, we must support one another, whatever is decided.
For this former Mid and his family, we, of course, wish fair winds and following seas.