The ongoing imperfection of our military academies

Once you’re on the inside of military academy life, your perspective changes forever. You’ve seen behind the curtain.

It’s not as disappointing as Toto revealing The (not-so) Great And Powerful Oz, but your understanding broadens.

When people learn of my kids attending USNA and USAFA, they immediately believe that they have had their Golden Ticket punched (yes, another old movie reference) and entered into a magical land with flying unicorns and sparkling rainbows where all their wishes come true. We on the inside know that beyond the pageantry and honor lies intense pressure that tests these young men women mentally, emotionally, and physically.

So when news like the latest out of the Air Force Academy, which expelled 22 cadets as part of a cheating scandal, our response is much more likely to be disappointment than surprise. Both West Point and USNA have endured their own COVID-era cheating scandals (among other not-so-glamorous things).

Those on the outside are often shocked by such events. After all, the academies are supposed to represent the best of the best and uphold a strict honor code. The process to choose these young men and women, however, was created and implemented by human beings. It’s operated by human beings. Squeezing all of the potential human error out of such a process is impossible.

The fact that this process evaluates human beings, most of whom are just emerging into adulthood, makes it obvious that it will not succeed 100% of the time.

Face it, that’s why USNA and the other academies build attrition into their appointment numbers. Some of these aspiring officers aren’t going to make it. Because no matter what their childhood dreams may have been, there is no way they could truly know the demands required to reach them. Some will find the academics too much. Others will balk at the rigor of the military schedules (3 a.m. watchstanders, unite!). Some will simply be asked to leave for conduct violations. The path is narrow and, frankly, not meant for everyone.

I was having a conversation with Grant Vermeer (who many of you know as the former Academy Insider) and one of the many truth bombs he dropped on me went something like this – everyone is at the Naval Academy for their own reason. It struck me as hugely profound because so many people on the outside view the Midshipmen as some homogenous mass, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in their sleep, disappointed that there isn’t a grade higher than A+, and much like Mary Poppins (yes, a third old movie reference!), practically perfect in every way. Let’s face it, when you see them on parade, they all look alike.

They are not.

I’ve talked with Mids who were clearly headed toward a 30-year career and others who made it clear that they were on a path for a Five & Dive. Some had dreamed of being a Navy pilot since kindergarten and others were still scratching their head the night before service selections choices were due. Some love the academy, some like it, some tolerate it, and some are simply gritting their teeth and focused on the finish line. They are all awesome in their own way, too.

One lesson our country has learned over the years is that diversity is good and makes us stronger. So it goes with the Naval Academy. There will continue to be Mids who cheat and are expelled for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t taint the meaning of commissioning and the honor of earning that degree. Indeed, in some ways, it magnifies it. Maybe only those of us on the inside understand that.

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