One of the lessons during my training as a journalist was about helping people make sense out of complicated situations whether it was a tax hike, the AFC playoff scenarios, or how the electoral college works.
So once I got past the initial shock of the news out of Pensacola last week, I began trying to make sense of it all, especially the loss of USNA Class of 2019 Ensign Kaleb Watson, who had only arrived to train as a Navy pilot about a month before the massacre. According to a story by The New York Times, he was so excited to be ready to train for his longtime dream that he had not only already bought a home in the area, but had taken the time to mow the lawn.
From what I could gather, he probably could have escaped unharmed. I can’t lie, I suspect my first instinct would be to run away. But Kaleb didn’t. Kaleb had earned a spot at the United States Naval Academy. Kaleb had endured four challenging years that pushed him mentally, morally, physically, and academically. He had performed so well that he earned a coveted spot to be trained as a Navy pilot. And for that, and probably many other reasons, he responded in a way I am certain I could not.
The ensign’s commanding officer told his parents that the young man had jumped over a desk or counter when the gunman started shooting. “He hollered back for people to get out, to run, and he tackled him,” Sheila Watson, Ensign Watson’s mother, said in an interview, her voice wavering with emotion. “He was fighting with him, trying to unarm him, and he was shooting my baby.”
Ensign Watson was shot five times. He managed to crawl out of the classroom building, Ms. Watson said, and gave emergency personnel a description of the gunman and his location, “and then he collapsed.”
Can anyone make sense of that? I thought of all my fellow USNA parents and knew they were all thinking the same thing I was – that could have been my Mid. There’s no way we could truly understand how Kaleb’s parents felt, but because most of us adhere to the mantra, “your mid is my mid,” we all felt empathy infused with a mixture of shock, fear, and sadness.
As I was working through the emotions and trying to make sense of it, my mind kept wandering back to people asking how it felt for my son to have a “free education.” Sure Kaleb, like all Midshipmen, had a “free education.” He earned a bachelor’s degree and completed numerous summer trainings. But he also got a “free education” about how evil presents itself in this world. He got a “free education” about sacrifice and duty and honor. As these thoughts simmered in mind, my emotions shifted from anger to sadness. I realized Kaleb did, in fact, get a free education from the United States Naval Academy. It was an education about life and the oath he took when he entered. And Friday, 6 December 2019 was the final exam, where he was given the ultimate test of what it meant to be a member of the United States military. Kaleb not only aced that exam, but he also set the standard by which others will be measured for years to come.
Maybe over the course of time, I will be able to make sense of it. But not now. Despite my training and experience, this is too raw, too real, too close.
For now, all I can pray for is a sense of peace and comfort for his family, a deepened sense of commitment for his fellow sailors and the Midshipmen who follow, and, for Kaleb, fair winds and following seas. His brothers and sisters have the watch, a watch they stand vigilantly, but with heavy hearts.