I cannot tell you the number of people I have come to know between social media and the Naval Academy that I have never – and may never actually meet. But I have come to know some pretty well and am amazed at some of their stories.
So when I came across an Instagram account named “Easel on Stribling,” I knew I had to check it out (I have finally gotten over my disdain for Stribling Walk – there’s nothing actually wrong with it, it’s just where we all meet our Plebes after Induction Day. For me, it was my worst day as a father, so Stribling was awful through guilt by association. Actually, click this link to learn about its namesake). So I followed, and it was pretty cool. Then I checked out the website and I was blown away.
This former Mid had created a dizzying array of original artwork based on The Yard. Then I read her story and it got even better. Not only did she attend the Academy, not only did she serve as an officer, but she was part of that rare group that found their spouse while attending. I just HAD to reach out and ask her to share her story and I am so glad that I did, because she said yes!
That means I get to introduce you to Kristin Cronic, the brains and talent behind Easel on Stribling. I’ll let her do most of the “talking”:
Life as a Midshipman
“At the Naval Academy, I was typical,” she said. “I intentionally didn’t wear more than one stripe of responsibility as a Firstie. For one thing, two and above meant I had to go to an extra striper sword practice, which was during my lunch nap (looking back, I was tired every single day of those four years!). But the bigger reason is I simply wanted a leadership role closer to the people I was surrounded by.”
She called herself typical and I hope she’s right. Because if she’s typical, all the Mids are pretty amazing! She made some adjustments to make her time at USNA more meaningful.
“Years of swimming 15 to 20 hours a week resulted in burn out, so I quit swimming plebe year, but did not take the freedom to just be a Midshipman for granted,” She said. “I didn’t try to find excuses to get out of the typical Mid stuff – march-ons, parades, formations … I really enjoyed just being present and available in the company.”
She said she was “still a perfectionist by any standard” and did well with her classes and hit the mark on the PRT – running a 9:20 mile and a half, doing 18 pull-ups. But she wanted to make sure she spent her time effectively.
“I learned to spend my energy with more intention and on the things that mattered to me, which was my relationship with my company, doing well in my major, and generally savoring the time there as best I could,” she said. “Just like everyone, I complained about the place at the time, but I am so grateful for the experience and want to give back.”
Advice for USNA Parents
Before we talk about her art, let’s stick with the military side of her life.
I asked her if she had advice for parents of Midshipmen.
“It’s hard to give advice when I’ve only been a parent since basically Tuesday. However, I can offer perspective, and even a little compassion,” she said. “Essentially, it’s a huge transition for everyone. The process of becoming an officer can be messy, stressful, unpredictable … and a mystery to the parents with no prior military experience. While in the middle of it, it’s hard to describe. Parents understandably want to know as much as they can, but your Mid likely doesn’t truly have the words or perspective to sufficiently explain everything. That can be frustrating for everyone!”
Isn’t THAT the truth!
“I can only imagine what it feels like to be a parent watching this evolution take place. Letting go of your child and having to watch from the side as they become officers is a transition for you too. I would imagine there is a lot of value to friendships with fellow parents and insights from blogs like this!”
Selfish side note: I hope so!
Life after Commissioning Week
Did she stick with the Navy life?
“I am no longer a ma’am! The decision to leave was hands down the hardest decision of my life,” she admitted. “I commissioned as a SWO with the Engineering Duty Option in 2011, and would absolutely do it again if given the chance. Surface Warfare was the quickest path to standing in front of sailors and earning real responsibility in the Navy. No more condescending ‘when you get to the Fleet’ lectures. The good days were incredible (and I would be lying if I did not acknowledge some really crappy days, too), but ship life is grueling. I knew it wasn’t for me long term, so I decided to take the option and transfer to Engineering Duty (which was primarily shore-based, and fit well with my Naval Architecture background).”
“The typical EDO path is grad school then qualification tour, but I was able to reverse it to colocate with Caleb (wait for it!). During that tour, I was pregnant with my daughter, and I had every intention of staying in. I had applied and been accepted to MIT for their grad program and was excited about throwing my hat in for dive school,” she said. Then, things changed. For real. “And then I had my daughter. At first, I tried to ignore what I knew in my gut, but after a lot of prayer and reflection during those weeks home with my newborn, I resigned from the Navy my first day back from maternity leave. I knew I was walking away from an incredible opportunity, but I also knew the lifestyle that went along with it was simply not what we wanted for our family. We wanted to put down roots and become a part of our community. We didn’t want to miss a moment with our babies. I wanted to have a garden I could actually try to keep alive (don’t ask me how that’s going ;)).”
She served on the USS Winston S Churchill, Destroyer Squadron 40, and Southeast Regional Maintenance Center.
Kristin knows that most of the people who read this blog are USNA parents and many of them are going through this stuff for the first time. So, selfishly, as the father of soon-to-be-Firstie, I asked her what to expect after commissioning.
“While intense, the Naval Academy provided a relatively predictable schedule. The Fleet does not,” she said. “The schedule is, at best, ‘gone a lot.’ Operational tempo is generally very high, and it is rare that a schedule doesn’t change multiple times.”
And even though it’s N*ot College, there are similarities.
“The Fleet, like most entry-level jobs after college, is also a huge learning curve,” she said. “Every officer will have to qualify in something, and unlike the safety net of school, the process can vary from command to command and sometimes be quite frustrating. Being a new ensign does feel a little like being a Plebe again, and it takes some time to establish oneself. The skills both the parents and the Mids learn Plebe year will likely come back that first year or two in the Fleet!”
She did add that her experience was on ships and other communities may have different experiences.
Love at the Academy?
Now for the fun part where she tells us how she & her husband met.
“I love this story,” she admitted. “My husband was quoted saying he would never date any girl that wanted to be in the Navy (Conversely, I didn’t have a problem with it!) … Well, our parents happened to sit next to each other during the I-Day ceremony and insisted we meet when they discovered we were in the same company. We wound up being in the same squad and stood next to each other for a large portion of the summer. We became friends, started dating a year later, and the rest is history. It’s cool to think I didn’t spend a day in the Navy without him in my life. He ‘love chitted’ out of the company after a few months, everyone knew so we figured it was the right thing to do.”
But this is N*ot College so …
“I wouldn’t say that there is really “dating” at the Academy. We went on a lot of runs together, especially after I quit swimming and didn’t know what to do with all the energy,” she said. “We also walked together to every class that made sense, and I’m sure people noticed and gagged a little at how much they saw us together!”
Then there was the end game at USNA.
“We tried hard to make our service selections independent of one another, but for a variety of reasons, we both realized SWO was a great fit, and to be honest, would maximize our time together (which wasn’t much those first four years),” she said. “He served as a SWO for six years but had planned on getting out before our daughter was born. We spent a lot of time apart and knew whatever he did next, it wouldn’t involve months of separation. He tells me he was the best damn ship driver in the Navy. To his defense, he did win the ship driving competition at Surface Warfare Officer School.”
Her husband Caleb served on the USS James E Williams, the USS New York, and LCSRON-2.
Dating at USNA is different than at college. But what about being married while serving?
“In some ways it’s wonderful, but it’s also incredibly hard. Our first four years of marriage lined up with our four years of sea duty, and during that time I think we spent a total of 15 months together … which is a lot, compared to most dual military couples,” she said. “We love spending time together. Every day we were apart hurt. We understood why people often become calloused and numb- you have to, for survival. But we chose to let it hurt. We made the most of time apart, but still deeply missed each other. It got easier in the sense that you learn how to manage it better, but it never felt right.”
There’s a silver lining, though.
“That being said, there is something to be said about truly understanding what each other is dealing with. It was very ironic that, while on different ships, our first SWO tours were nearly identical- we happened to be placed in charge of the same divisions upon arriving to our respective ships, and again after a shuffle one year later,” she said. “That really helped when one Electric Shop needed a battery from another Electric Shop! We didn’t have to spend a lot of time helping the other understand the details.”
And they worked to make the best of it.
“I cherish some of the memories and, as I mentioned before, the good days were amazing. We overlapped on our first deployment for a few months, and in the Arabian Gulf there is a phenomenon known as ‘ducting,’ where radio calls which normally have a range of only 15 nautical miles or so, can be heard hundreds of miles away,” she said. “One night, despite the fact that our ships were nowhere close, he heard my voice on the bridge to bridge radio, and called back. There’s not a whole lot you can say while the entire Gulf is listening, but it was amazing to hear his voice for the first time in months.”
And it pays to have friends!
“While on that same deployment, our ships were passing (as ours was relieving his on station), and they happened to have a part for one of our helicopters. (It’s pretty common to swap parts with other ships at sea),” she said. “The officer who orchestrated the swap knew about Caleb and was a great guy, so he arranged Caleb to come over on the helicopter. At that point, we were probably 6 months into a year apart, and it was truly amazing to give him the biggest hug in the middle of the Gulf of Oman! We were SO blessed to have that experience together.”
Once an artist, always an artist
And now, on to the creative stuff. What about painting, especially at the Academy and in the Fleet?
“I’ve always been an artist. My high school had an amazing art program which is where I got a strong foundation. I took every class I could and experimented with almost everything they had to offer,” she said. “Painting at the Academy was much less, but it did happen. As a 2/C, I found a vacant art studio in the towers of Dahlgren, completely outfitted. We moved a few times while I was there, but I hope it still has a space! I started a small art club (which was usually just a couple of people at best) and we’d paint once a week with a local artist who was generous enough to teach. I did do a sketch of my desk during plebe summer.”
Once off The Yard, she dedicated more energy to her craft.
“I discovered my painting practice with more vigor after commissioning. I found it to be centering and meditative amidst the stress of ship life,” she said. “There was no time for it on the ship, but I took my evenings and days off when Caleb was gone to stay home and create. It felt really good to do that.”
“I wasn’t able to really get serious about it until my second SWO tour. I landed the coolest staff job ever, which came with more regular work hours (when not deployed) compared to the ship grind,” Kristin said. “Caleb was gone most of that time, so I met a local painter and I started studying with him in the evenings. That’s where I really learned to paint in oil, and since then, it’s been a daily practice, and studying when I can with other artists.”
What about Easel on Stribling?
“Easel on Stribling was born for a few reasons. First, as a painter, it was only natural to want to share the experience in a fresh way. I want my art to humanize the experience for those who have not gone through it themselves, and to help those who have reflected on their own unique perspectives. It’s a special place, an amazing place, really. I love the family aspect of it, how once you are part of it (however you are connected), you always will be. My vision is to create a coffee table book of paintings and stories that share the perspective of what it was like to be there. I don’t want it to be all about me- I want to paint and tell it in a way that places the reader right there too, feeling the same things. For the parents and family members, I want to them to feel more connected to the moments they didn’t get to be a part of. For those who have, I hope it brings them back to those places,” she started.
“Second, I don’t only want to paint the military, but my other work needed a place to live on its own, so I separated my personal art (found on this website) with Easel on Stribling. I’m gearing up for a huge solo show of my recent series, Canopies, in April. These paintings are 4-to-7 feet tall and all about the trees of my hometown, but really, they are about coming home after exploring the unknown. I found a lot of clarity in coming home after joining the Navy. Those signature oaks of North Florida were always there, but it wasn’t until I came back that I really noticed them. Looking at them on this side of the military helped me appreciate the entire experience. They hadn’t changed, but I had.”
While she’s been painting a long time, she’s only opened her art to the word fairly recently.
“While I’ve been sharing my art online since USNA, it was only this past year I finally had an opportunity to dive in. The weekend after I left the Navy in September of 2017, we flooded during Hurricane Irma,” she said. “All of the planning and organizing (figuratively and literally) we had meticulously done in preparation for two people leaving the Navy at the same time were swept away in those 10 inches of water. We had an 11-month-old daughter, a significant dent in our possessions, an upcoming sales job, and a new baby on the way. Possibly the hardest part of all, we had both just left the only thing we’d known for over 10 years. It was a lot to handle, and for the first few months, I tapped into that military training and just didn’t respond emotionally. After a few months, however, it finally hit me. It was in that moment I realized I had to paint. I couldn’t keep putting it off, and It wasn’t just a hobby. So, when my son was born, I quit my job to cherish the time with him and to paint. He’s almost a year old now, and it’s been wonderful. I don’t know what the next step is for us, but I know painting is here to stay.”
And we’re all the better for it!