The leadership challenges that await

While Susan Weisberg (the brilliant author of the Chester Midshipmouse books) and I were recording this year’s Herndon Climb Playlist, she reminded us of the simple fact that the Midshipmen are training to become Naval and Marine Corps officers.

Now that may sound rather simple, but it’s easy to get swept up in the pageantry and traditions of the Naval Academy and realize that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not an endgame but rather a means to an end. These young men and women are preparing for an important job – to lead in our military.

From the outside, life as a Midshipman can seem rather glamorous – the uniforms, the parades, meal formations, the Army-Navy game. But we know it’s a challenging path. The same is true for life as an officer. It’s a job and a difficult one at that.

Any leadership position has its challenges, but recently we’ve been reading that Naval officers – and the upper leadership – have some serious, deep-seated issues with which to wrestle, most notably in the surface warfare community.

According to NPR, NBC News reported that last year saw an alarming increase in the number of sailors who deserted the Navy, and in fact, that number has been on the rise over the past three years. For context, the other branches of the military have not experienced an increase over that same period.

Why? No one has a simple answer. But the fact is, unlike many folks who simply bailed on their jobs during the Great Resignation, unhappy sailors don’t have a lot of options.

“[For] somebody who just doesn’t like the environment, it’s almost impossible to leave,” said Stephanie Kral an Air Force legal officer for seven years.

“Somebody who’s suffering with an acute mental health crisis … should not ordinarily result in a mental health discharge,” Kral told NPR. “What should happen is that they receive the care and treatment that they need to be ready to rehab their mental health and then go back to being a member of the fleet. Unfortunately, that’s not always what we see.”

And deserting is not something to take lightly. According to a Yahoo! News story, “During wartime, the most severe punishments for desertion are death and up to life in prison, said Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesperson. In other times, a deserter could face a range of penalties, including up to five years’ confinement.”

Faced with such a daunting punishment, some sailors have chosen an even more serious path – suicide. In fact, over the past three years, seven sailors aboard the USS Washington have died by suicide, including five in the last year, three of them within a week of each other.

Consider this excerpt from the Yahoo! story:

In May 2021, Hannah Crisostomo, an aviation boatswain’s mate handler on the George Washington, attempted suicide on the heels of her first anniversary with the Navy.

Crisostomo had reached her breaking point after having constantly been berated for things that were out of her control. But due to a binding five-year agreement she signed when she was a 17-year-old senior in high school, resigning with two weeks’ notice wasn’t an option.

“There is no easy option,” said Crisostomo, who was on life support for eight days after her suicide attempt. She left the Navy in October on an honorable discharge with a medical condition.

– Yahoo! News

It’s easy to say, “well, that’s what they signed up for” and technically, that’s true. But I can’t think of many things I committed to as a high school senior that I looked back on five years later and said, “great decision, Karl.” If I look back over my professional career, the number of places I’ve spent less than five years far outweighs the places I’ve spent five or more years.

And let’s consider our own Midshipmen, most of whom accepted their appointments out of high school. Despite making that commitment, some didn’t make it through Plebe Summer. In fact, about 10% of those who bark out “I do!” on I Day will not be there to accept a commission and toss their cover in the stadium. And the overwhelming majority of those who don’t finish their four years will leave without repercussions from the Naval Academy or the Navy. Whether it’s a physical problem or just the realization that life as a Naval officer isn’t for them, they are allowed to walk away.

That’s not the case for enlisted sailors. And those are exactly the people the Midshipmen are being trained to lead. Our sons and daughters will develop important skills over their four years at USNA, but few will be more important than the soft skills of recognizing individuals who are struggling emotionally and mentally. It’s easy to follow the military stereotype of “you’ll do it because I said so,” but as the startling desertion statistics and the tragic news from the USS Washington illustrate, it is not always the best path.

These are the real-world challenges new officers will face and we must hope that they are able to reverse these troubling trends.

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