It’s often said that a person doesn’t get appointed to a military academy, an entire family gets appointed. Sure, the son or daughter does the really hard part – they endure Induction Day, live at the bottom run of the ladder during that first year, balance a staggering academic load with military duties and extracurriculars, and give up pretty much any semblance of free time or vacation. But the rest of the family, in ways big and small, must adapt their lives as well.
The sons and daughters are preparing for a singular mission, regardless of their service assignment or aspirations. They are training to become military officers, leaders in the greatest military the world has ever known.
Families, parents in particular, are preparing, too. We are training to become key cogs in a support system for those military leaders and our time as academy parents prepares us for this unique honor and duty.
Most of us are intensely involved in our child’s high school life, whether that’s cheering at countless sporting events, attending a wide array of performances, participating in Scout activities, or providing counsel and guidance for any number of important decisions. Lesson one comes abruptly during Induction Day when we learn that our involvement will, at best, be at arm’s length and our sons and daughters will largely be expected to “figure it out” without us.
Over the four years as academy parents, we adjust to limited contact (whether by applied restriction or simply lack of time) and often not knowing what’s happening, when it’s happening, why it’s happening, or to whom it’s happening. As we struggle to adjust to our drastically changed roles, we also learn to celebrate important milestones – in person or from afar.
It’s a roller coaster ride that doesn’t often make sense (to us or our sons and daughters) but with the benefit of hindsight, I see it with clarity.
My oldest, the 2020 USNA grad deployed aboard the USS Florida for the first time last month so, for the first time, my military academy training is truly being put to the test.
During my son’s time at the academy, I learned to pay attention to three streams of information, which were not always entirely in sync – 1) my son, 2) the academy, and 3) experienced parents. Over the years, I began to tune my filter to strike a balance that would provide me the most likely path to both the truth and, maybe more importantly, my sanity.
So as my son prepared to submerge for an extended period of time, I sought out as much information as I could, ran it through my own filtering process, and developed at least a base understanding of what I needed to do. It reminded me of his time working through his application to USNA – some things were clearly spelled out and simply required focus to complete while others were a little more slippery and led both of us to do more homework, oftentimes coming down to, “well, let’s hope this works.”
I had lists of usernames and passwords for a dozen or so accounts and instructions on what I needed to do and when.
Then, as seemed to be SOP at USNA, a couple of things went sideways and I scrambled to figure out how to right the ship. I’m certain that if I had not paid attention during my first four years as a military academy parent, this would have shot me into a deadspin panic. But my training served me well and I managed to get things on track with minimal damage without any contact with my son, something I had to do more than once (or a dozen) times while he was a Midshipman.
Communication is very similar to those four years as well. When he was a Mid, I would email my son regularly, send stuff via Facebook, and drop regular notes and care packages in the mail. Every so often, he’d contact me, often ignoring the half-dozen questions I had asked and inquiring about something entirely different. Now that he’s underway, I email him regularly and when the ship is at the prescribed depth, he can receive those messages, though not necessarily in order. Meanwhile, I’ll get a message or two back – again, often nonsequential – and try to match up the timelines.
The mysteries of what he’s up to continue as they have since he walked into Bancroft more than six years ago. He’s always been vigilant about OPSEC – something else I picked up as a Mid parent, so much so that I’ll ask him something about his boat, he’ll say he’s not sure he can tell me, then I’ll find the answer on Wikipedia. But as for his mission? Well, here is his OPSEC-friendly description, and this is an exact quote: “I am in place X doing Y. There are some uninvited and unwelcome guests and I’m going to join the welcoming party. I’ll be back when the party is over.”
So much like him, I rely on my training. I follow the protocols we set before he left, I dutifully check for email updates and send him messages regularly, and I wait.
Because that’s part of what being a military academy parent trained me for.