The Kid is Alright (And So Am I)

We spent this Thanksgiving with our son (my only child) in Florida. He graduated from the Naval Academy in May and is now waiting to start flight training. I am therefore passing into yet another new stage of parenting, having an adult college-educated son who is completely independent. He has an apartment, a car and a job. He really doesn’t need us for anything.

Looking back, the two hardest transitions for me were his first day of kindergarten and the first month after he left home for college. My husband had to peel me away from the front door of the elementary school when we dropped him off at kindergarten. I blubbered all the way home about this being “the beginning of the end.” The first month of his “Plebe Summer” at the Academy, I missed him terribly. Our house and lives suddenly became strangely quiet, and I found myself pacing anxiously around the house and staring at his empty room. I physically ached from the loss of his everyday company.

Somewhere around the beginning of his senior year at the Academy, long after finally and happily settling into my role as USNA Mom, I began to feel a pit in my stomach, knowing that my son would soon be leaving the relatively safe Academy environment (that I had grown to love) and that his chosen career would become increasingly dangerous as he pursues his future training and then faces prospective deployments. After we said good-bye this past May, following his graduation, we knew we might not see him again until Christmas. I anticipated another tough adjustment, but I have to say, so far this stage has been much easier than I thought.   I feel surprisingly at peace being less actively involved in his life.

I believe there gradually comes a point in the parenting relationship, where both our kids and we realize that it is us (the parents) that yearn for more time with them (the kids) than they yearn for with us.  The early to mid twenties is also an important time for our kids to independently build their own identities.   When I reflect on my own past with my own parents, I am reminded of the importance of “releasing” my son for his vital personal development.   Besides, quite frankly, I find much in the life of a 22-year-old male somewhat unappealing, and often the “son” I miss hanging out with is the 8-year-old version (the one for whom I was the center of his universe). Added to that, my husband and I have built an active and enjoyable life together.

As for the future dangers in my son’s military career, I try not to think about it too much.  I put his safety into God’s hands and remind myself that he is doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do and he will be well trained.  (Of course, it is still relatively easy to ignore my fears while he is waiting around for training to begin, so check back in another year or two on that one!)

What is important to me personally, though, as I adjust to this stage of parenting, is to (1) maintain a connection with my son, and (2) know that he is okay. In my quest to sustain a connection, we frequently text each other, and routinely talk every Sunday by phone. Our Sunday calls, however, are often more interrogation than chat. Our son is not naturally talkative – he doesn’t hide information, but he doesn’t freely volunteer it either. Therefore, expertly framing and posing the right questions is a key skill when talking to him. When physically with him, however, we have long conversations (usually over meals) and I feel connected and caught up with his life. Since he had plenty of time on his hands (waiting for flight training to start) our Florida visit was pure gold. He was relaxed; we talked, laughed, and enjoyed several activities (and daytrips) together. He and I have always shared a sense of humor (that sometimes stumps even my husband) and he can make me laugh like few others. We are fortunate that our son still enjoys spending time with us (or at least cheerfully tolerates it). And though I admit I occasionally still long for my little boy, there are many parts of this stage of life that I enjoy even more. What a godsend to realize I’ve raised someone that I truly like!

A visit to my son's workplace

A visit to my son’s workplace

Most importantly, I was able to do my “Mom’s Due Diligence” and feel content that my son is okay. I saw his apartment. It is attractive and in a great location. I met his two roommates. They are polite and respectful. I visited his workplace. I inspected his car. No scrapes or dings, and it has been conscientiously well maintained. I met some of his friends. They are solid buddies. I went to his volleyball and basketball games and chatted with his teammates. They are affable and supportive. He introduced us to his new girlfriend. She is adorable, funny and smart, and she clearly appreciates my son and treats him with respect.

I know I will have fewer such opportunities to pop into his life as his career progresses. The future may be uncertain, and although it may not always be so, for now, we are connected and the kid is alright. And so am I. And that is my Thanksgiving blessing.

Psalm 46:1

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

Service Selection Day (Mom’s Edition)

There are a handful of days from my son’s life that stand out as extra special; days that I will never forget. He’s only 21, so, God willing, there will be many more, but as of now it is a small, cherished collection. I’ll never forget the day he was born. The day he started kindergarten.   The day his high school basketball team unexpectedly won the CIF championship. The day he received his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Yesterday was a day to add to the collection. It was Service Selection Day at USNA, the day that my son, along with the rest of the senior class, learned what their jobs in the military would be after graduation. They submitted their requests at the beginning of this year, and the Navy tries to honor them as much as possible, but nothing is guaranteed. Senior naval officers consider Midshipmen performance and aptitude as well as the needs of the Navy in determining assignments. There is a great deal of anxiety and tension leading up to this day. For some, this is the culmination of years of hard work leading to a hoped-for realization of a specific goal.

My son has wanted to be a pilot since he was about four years old, and a Navy pilot since about ten. It was to achieve this goal that he applied for and won an Appointment to Annapolis. At the beginning of this year, he formally requested Navy Pilot as his first choice service selection.

Since he’s a son (and not a daughter) there was, quite typically, not a lot of conversation around Service Selection Day. He mentioned the date in passing several weeks ago, and I promptly put it on my calendar (in case he forgot to tell us and we had to ask what he would be doing the next five years.) But as the date approached, I sensed it was looming large in his mind.   Last Sunday night, he brought the topic up and admitted he was nervous. He had no reason to doubt he would get pilot, but said he would be relieved to have the paper in hand. He said he would find out about 10 AM our time on Thursday.

So, here’s how Service Selection Day actually went down in our house. On Thursday morning, our cleaning lady was coming and we were rushing around getting the house ready. At around 8:30 AM, I noticed on Facebook that there was going to be a video feed of Service Selection Day for my son’s Company. So, I excitedly fumbled around on the computer and got a video feed of the empty Company ward room. While waiting for things to get going, we went back to getting the house ready. Finally, I saw a few guys file into the room on the screen and someone began talking about (as far as I could tell since it was garbled) their pay package (which I figured was the intro to Service Selection).   I saw one of my son’s friends on the screen so I texted him to say I couldn’t really understand what anyone was saying in the video feed. Then I went back to the house.

Then my son called my husband’s cell phone, and my husband was trying to get my son on speaker and he ran to the computer to see if we could see him, and he was yelling into the phone that we had the ward room on the screen and that he should go in and we would be able to see him once Service Selection started. Meanwhile, my son is saying “Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad………DAD!, DAD!, DAD!……and finally, DAAAAAAAD!!!!!” And our son shouted, “I just got my Service Selection!” And we both said “What?!” And I said something about it not being 10:00 AM so how could he get his service selection already, and how come he wasn’t on the video feed? And then we both stopped and listened and then we heard that utter joy, that utter excitement in his voice as he continued.   “I have good news!” We held our breath. “I got NAVY PILOT!!!!!!” I just remember screaming and jumping and hugging and crying a little bit. But mostly, I was incredibly relieved and happy.

The newly selected Navy Pilots from 29th Company

The newly selected Navy Pilots from 29th Company

After we hung up, I realized we were viewing the wrong video feed. We were watching an old session about their retirement program. And when we tried to watch a replay of the Service Selection video, we saw some of our son’s Company-mates, but not him.  There had been a problem with the video feed and half of the session was not captured. But, you know, it wasn’t important. We saw how the process worked and some of his friends getting their service assignments. And hearing our son’s excited voice on the phone was pure gold.

I fired off several texts and messages with the big news and then headed over to my Gentle Yoga class. Which was absolutely the wrong place for me to go right then. I was as amped up as if I’d downed 4 or 5 Red Bulls, and trying to “center” myself and “breathe” was almost impossible.. I really should have done Zumba or some other activity that would’ve allowed me to jump and dance and sing, because that’s what I really needed to do.

Twenty-four hours later, I’m still amped up. I can sometimes let the “What If’s” cause me great anxiety, and the “What if he doesn’t get pilot” was especially distressing to consider. So I am feeling relief. I am extremely grateful that one of any mom’s worse nightmares – her child suffering a crushing disappointment – did not come to pass. But, more than that, I take great joy in seeing my son achieve an important step toward his dream. Unlike grade school, where my husband and I were right there to provide assistance, prodding and guidance, this achievement was due entirely to his own efforts. I could not be more proud.

Of course, there are more trials, tests and challenges ahead before the ultimate goal of Navy Jet Pilot is achieved. But now is not the time to worry about tomorrow, because I am content to savor this moment and cherish this day.

Good Ole Rupe

Capt Brooke's obituary in the January-February 2014 Edition of Shipmate Magazine

Capt Brooke’s obituary in the January-February 2014 Edition of Shipmate Magazine

Today we received our March-April 2014 edition of Shipmate, the magazine published by the Alumni Association of the US Naval Academy. My husband is a 1967 graduate and my late father Bob was also an alumnus, graduating with the great class of 1947. Dad passed away on Veterans Day in 2005. I still really miss him.

Alas, the first thing I turn to is the Last Call section, which features obituaries by class year. I check both the 1967 and 1947 sections, dreading the sight of a familiar name amongst these pages. Once I get through Last Call, then I feel comfortable reading other news and articles.

Today I finished Last Call for both classes and didn’t see any names I recognized. Then I began reading the Class News. Midway through the 1947 Class News I read “The joys of our Holiday Season were dimmed by the following losses from our ranks: …………….Rupert Brooke……………,”

My heart sank when I read that Rupert Brooke had died. I felt that old familiar punched-in-the-gut feeling. Again. He was a dear friend and long-time tennis partner of my Dad’s. He and Dad had a standing weekly tennis date in San Diego (where they both retired) for years. Dad would invariably come back from one of his tennis dates with another uproarious story about “Good Ole Rupe” (as he always called him).

I only met Capt. Brooke (as I called him) a few times, but he was such a central character in my Dad’s life that he became one of those people who felt like an old friend in mine.   I knew that Capt. Brooke had been a Tailhook naval aviator and he regaled my father (who as a Navy dentist was a bit of wimp himself but loved vicarious flying) with stories of carrier landings and other thrilling daredevil aviator adventures.

At one point, shortly before my father’s cancer diagnosis, he told me that ‘Ole Rupe’ was very sick – that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer and was not expected to survive.   I don’t recall my Dad ever being sadder.

As fate would have it, Capt. Brooke survived that bout of cancer while my father did not. In fact, Capt. Brooke missed my father’s funeral due to his own hospitalization.

Once Capt. Brooke recovered, I took my Mom to have lunch with the Brookes, and he wrote me a series of letters with stories about my Dad and offering encouragement to my son (who was pursuing an appointment to USNA himself). When my mother passed away three years later, Capt. Brooke was again quick to offer condolences and support, and in the years since we exchanged Christmas cards and I received occasional notes of encouragement.  I haven’t received anything from Capt. Brooke in the past couple years and in fact one letter I wrote to him last summer went unanswered so I feared a turn for the worse.

And now ‘Good Ole Rupe’ is gone. And I am heartbroken. Capt. Brooke was one of the few remaining threads to my Dad. The more time elapsed and the more friends and associates gone, the more “final” my Dad’s death feels. News like Capt. Brooke’s death stirs up sorrow for my Dad anew and begins another cycle of grief.

I turned to the previous Shipmate edition and found the obituary for Capt. Brooke (which I had apparently missed). I read that Capt. Brooke was born and raised in Oklahoma City and that he met his wife of 67 years when they were both in junior high school. He had two kids and six grandchildren and was a weekly calculus tutor for struggling students at a nearby high school. And I know that he was an inspiration to me and a beloved friend to my Dad. You will be missed, Capt. Brooke. Rest in peace. Say hello to my Dad for me. He will be delighted to have his favorite tennis partner back.

 

Honoring Losses

“Unresolved loss is cumulative and cumulatively negative.” I was recently struck by these words (from The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman).

Right smack in the middle of my current manic phase of retirement, as I was busy throwing myself into the pursuit of new and exciting opportunities for my upcoming retirement years, I experienced a profound and wholly unexpected episode of grieving for past losses.

It started a week ago on Friday, which was my stepson David’s birthday.   He would have been 43 years old, but he was killed in a snowboarding accident in 2002.  I typically don’t make any public mention of him or the circumstances each year on his birthday; rather, my husband, son and I quietly and prayerfully remember him.

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

This year, my niece Tamra (David’s cousin), posted a photo on Facebook of David (when he was around 7 or 8) with Tamra and Megan (Tamra’s sister), at their grandparents’ house celebrating his birthday.  Along with the photo was a touching sentiment about David’s birthday and how much he is missed in our family.   This simple act prompted an organic electronic outpouring of remembrances on Facebook, with Megan, Tamra and Kim (David’s girlfriend at the time of his death) my son and I all participating (each of us from a different city) with postings of more photos and memories.  It was a remarkable, deeply comforting and completely unanticipated community experience.

The next day I was scheduled to travel to San Diego by myself for the weekend to visit friends from high school.  I was looking forward to a fun ‘girls’ weekend, but I was still feeling raw from Friday and the long drive gave me time to reflect.  I thought about David and all he meant to me.  I was young (27) when I met my husband, who at the time was a single dad with custody of 14-year-old David (who played adorable match-maker during our courtship).  My subsequent marriage was therefore a package deal, and I became full-time stepmom (at 29) to a headstrong and spirited teenage son.  My relationship with David was one of the most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding, in my life.  With him, I learned to be a mom.  I learned about friendship and love. He could be a harsh critic, but also my most loyal steadfast supporter.   As he grew older, he became a cherished confidante. When my son was born, I wasn’t sure how David would react to a half-brother, but David loved him immediately and fervently. David couldn’t get enough of him and had great plans for the two of them. They would’ve gotten into such wonderful trouble together!

David with his little brother at their grandpa's birthday party

David with his “little bro” at their grandpa’s birthday party

When David died at age 31, he was just coming into his own.   I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing him settle down, get married, have kids (grandkids!!!!!!!!).   People, trying to be helpful, said things like, “Feel better, he’s in a better place” or “Time heals all wounds” and there’s partial truth in those statements.  My Christian faith reassures me of his eternal life. But the dead don’t grieve; rather, grief belongs to the ones left behind.  And David’s death still hurts. My loss is a future without him.  My son, who is now 20, was 8 when David died.  I’m sad that my son grew up without his big brother – a big brother that would have been his biggest fan and so proud of his accomplishments.  For years after David died, I still looked for him to show up at my son’s sporting events, and when I saw someone that looked like David, my heart would jump and then plummet at the realization that it wasn’t him.  When the phone rang or the front door opened, I had a similar reaction.  At my son’s Induction Day at the Naval Academy, in the midst of intense pride, I felt intense sadness that neither David nor my parents were there.  I’m sad that I don’t have grandkids to help David raise.  He would’ve made an awesome dad.

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

The closer I got to San Diego, I also became melancholy about my parents.  I was starting to get annoyed at myself for all the drama, but it was rather involuntary and there wasn’t much I could do.   San Diego holds many memories, as it was there I spent my teenage years and where my parents remained until shortly before they both passed away.  For most of my adult life, my parents’ house (later condo) in San Diego was my safe haven – where I would return to visit, to rest, to drop off my son for babysitting.  My parents always gave me the space I needed, no questions asked.  If I showed up and spent four days sleeping upstairs, that was fine with them.  If I asked them to take us to Sea World, the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (all in the same weekend), they happily complied.  When they both died, I lost my safe haven.

Fortunately, in the midst of my gloom, my visit to San Diego was exactly what I needed.   I am blessed to have close enduring friendships from my high school days that provide me with space to be vulnerable.  First I had brunch with my friend Kelly, whom I met in sixth grade, and who is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know.  The rest of the weekend I spent with my friend Celeste, who has overcome great personal challenges with a grace and aplomb that I have long admired.  She is completely nonjudgmental and I’ve always felt comfortable talking to her about anything.  She opened up her house to me and gave me that safe haven I was missing. Being with friends who literally and figuratively embraced me for the weekend, who gave me room to talk and rest, who know me well enough to both challenge and support me, was life sustaining.

As I left San Diego for the drive home, I reflected again on loss.  I thought about how, as we get older, the losses begin to accumulate.  Throughout our lives we experience broken relationships, job loss, divorce, death, empty nest, and, most recently for me, retirement, which signals the end of a career.  I thought about how important it is to pause to recognize losses, to honor them and the attendant grief.   One of the benefits to me of this blog is that writing helps me to identify and process.  More important is the experience of being truly heard by others.  I realized how important the past three days had been, and how God placed key people and events in my path to help guide and comfort me through some unexpected but necessary grief.

I will never be completely “over” grieving my past losses and I will have new wounds to face.  As I head into retirement, I need to be aware of any grief over leaving my career and that phase of my life. But as last weekend reminded me, when I was slapped in the face with unforeseen and powerful grief, I have less to fear from sorrow and loss when I take the time to honor and recognize it, surrounded with people who know me and care for me.  Sometimes in my quest to charge forward, I need to stop and look backward.  And rest for a spell.  Time does NOT heal all wounds.

The Basketball Tripleheader: My Life as a Groupie

I think I’m becoming a Navy sports groupie.  Perhaps I need to “get a life.”  But in the meantime, a highlight of my last trip to Annapolis was a full-day Navy basketball triple header.   We started the day at 9:00 AM, watching the Navy JV basketball team (of which our son is a member) play the NAPS (Naval Academy Preparatory School) team.  Then the Army-Navy basketball doubleheader kicked off in Alumni Hall with the varsity women’s game at 1:30 PM and the varsity men’s at 4:00 PM.

Our son’s game was in the old Halsey Field House gym where my husband used to play when he was a midshipmen. It was a rather unremarkable game, other than the fact that my son got a Charlie horse on each leg and hurt his foot when someone stepped on it. But just being back in a gym watching my son play basketball was pure gold.

After lunch we moved over to glittering Alumni Hall for the Army-Navy games.  For the uninitiated, it must be understood that a primary goal of the U.S. Naval Academy (“Navy”) is to beat the U.S. Military Academy (“Army”) at everything and anything they can.  Likewise, a primary goal of Army is to beat Navy at everything and anything they can.  At times that seems a larger mutual objective than preparing for any foreign enemy. When Navy plays Army in any sport, emotions run at a fever pitch, and a carnival atmosphere results.  It is impossible not to be swept up in the spirit of the Army cadets and Navy midshipmen.

There were so many enjoyable things about the day.  First, I love watching the level to which women’s sports have risen. Having parented only boys, I’ve watched only men’s games for years. Title IX has certainly changed the complexion of the sporting world.  At my high school, the big sports for girls were swimming and softball and I don’t recall the teams given much priority.   Although I’m sure it happened, I don’t remember girls winning athletic college scholarships. It was not particularly cool to be a female “jock” in high school.  I felt my heart swell with pride watching the Navy women play basketball. They are strong and skilled yet still feminine.  Off the court, they are studying science and engineering at one of the most rigorous technical universities in the country. They give me hope!

CDR Becky Calder after her jersey was retired at USNA (photo US Naval Academy)

CDR Becky Calder after her jersey was retired at USNA (photo US Naval Academy)

The halftime entertainment was a group of precision jump-roping elementary and middle school girls called the “Firecrackers.”  They were unbelievably proficient in their tumbling and rope-skipping routines, bringing the midshipmen to their feet with applause. Also at halftime, the Naval Academy Athletic Association retired the first jersey of a woman basketball player, Cdr. Becky Calder (formerly Dowling), a member of the USNA Class of 1998.  As I listened to her biography, I was impressed with her accomplishments on the basketball court.  She was credited with sparking the first successful era for the Navy women’s basketball program at the Division I level. Her class’s four-year total 80 victories set a school record at the time and helped the Navy women win their first Patriot League regular season title. 
Individually, Dowling was selected as the Patriot League’s “Rookie of the Year” in addition to a trio of all-league accolades. She still ranks among Navy’s top 10 career leaders in 15 statistical categories, including 1st in rebounds, rebounding average, steals and minutes played, while also standing 6th in points scored.  Even more so, I was impressed with her accomplishments after graduation from the Naval Academy. Dowling attended flight school and trained to fly the F/A-18 Super Hornet. She became the first female pilot to graduate from Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, more commonly called TOPGUN. Dowling was an active duty pilot for 14 years, serving aboard aircraft carriers during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.  When interviewed after the game, Becky said “I’m extremely humbled to be the first player in program history to have my jersey retired. I’m proud, but what makes me most happy is knowing that I won’t be the last.” I loved that the current Navy women’s team stayed court side during the half-time ceremony, and the look of inspiration on their face was priceless. Way to keep chipping away at that glass ceiling!

After halftime, the Navy women went on to beat Army by 10.  I noticed during the women’s game, many of the male players came out of the locker rooms to cheer on the women.  The tradition after an Army-Navy game is for each team’s alma mater to be played, the winning team’s last.  Both teams (and cadets and midshipmen in attendance) stand at attention for each other’s alma mater, but Army ends theirs with “Beat Navy!” and Navy ends theirs with “Beat Army!”  It is inspiring to watch young people from both academies show their mutual respect to each other and to their rivalry.  (Note that nobody yells “Beat Air Force!” which really gets under the “Zoomies’” skin; in fact, I once saw a bumper sticker that said “Go Navy!  Beat Army!  Air Force is irrelevant.”)

Then it was announced that between basketball games, members of the Navy football team would be in Alumni Hall signing autographs.  I was beside myself.  I bolted from my seat to search out my favorite Navy players.  Mainly I wanted to see Keenan Reynolds (QB) and Nick Sloan (PK).  Although I tried not to be TOO obvious, I have what I can only describe as a “Mom-Crush” on these two players; meaning I wish I could be their second mom.  It is totally irrational, but through three seasons of attending most Navy football home games, and following the ups and downs of the team and individual players, I found myself bonding from afar with these young men. I feel an odd kinship and pride in them like they were my own sons. Reynolds, because we’ve watched him play out the all-American success story – thrust into a big game as a freshman to relieve an injured (and ineffective) starting quarterback and leading his team to victory and who is on his way to becoming one of the most successful QBs in Navy history.  Sloan, the kicker, because he’s from San Diego and I admire how he kept his composure this past season to achieve success following crushing failures.

Tip off at the Navy Men's Basketball Game

Tip off at the Navy Men’s Basketball Game

I walked (suppressing the urge to run) over and found a very long table with my favorite Navy players, Keenan at the end.   I realized that (1) in my haste I didn’t bring anything for them to sign; and (2) most of the people getting autographs were under 10 years old and 5 feet tall.  So, I coolly walked down the table and stared at all of the guys.  I’m sure if any of them had looked at me, I would have creeped them out.   Then I stationed myself near Keenan at the end of the table and just stared at him for a while.  After about 10 minutes of staring, I decided to take action.  I approached Nick Sloan, said something lame about being from San Diego and complimented him on “hanging in there” and shook his hand. To his credit, he acted like he thought me being from San Diego was interesting and introduced me to the guy next to him who he said was also from San Diego and who played my high school in football.  My courage up, I went back to Keenan and waited for my opportunity.  When a break in the young autograph-seekers occurred, I shoved my hand in his face, asked if I could shake his hand, congratulated him on a great season and asked him how his eyes were. (In their Bowl game, a horrid player on the other team was caught on camera trying to poke Keenan’s eyes after a tackle.  In my role as second mom, I’ve been worrying about his eyes ever since.)  He shook my hand and said, in response to my question about his eyes, “They’re fine, ma’am.”

Reggie Miller joins the sportscasting team for coverage of the men's game

Reggie Miller joins the sportscasting team for coverage of the men’s game

Then I went back to my seat and watched Army beat Navy by five points in the men’s basketball game.  But not before Reggie Miller (former UCLA basketball star) showed up to do the play-by-play and sit less than 20 yards in front of me. The “Firecrackers” put on another spectacular halftime show, again bringing the midshipmen to their feet. At the end of the game, the Army alma mater played last, but it was still a great Navy day.  It was the kind of day I have almost come to expect when visiting the Academy, where I am surprised and delighted and inspired by the talent and character of the young people I am exposed to.    And I am never washing my right hand again.

A Post-Veterans Day Reflection from a Future Military Mom

My husband and I spent Veterans Day 2013 in Annapolis, MD.  Both Veterans Day and Annapolis hold great personal significance for me.  My father was an Annapolis graduate who served a 30-year career as naval officer; ultimately a Navy captain and dentist, he was a Korean and Vietnam War veteran.  He passed away on Veterans Day 2005.  My husband is a retired naval officer and aviator, also an Annapolis graduate and Vietnam War veteran.  I met my husband in northern Virginia at the tail end of his military career, while at his last duty station.   Our son is a current Midshipman at the Naval Academy and now lives in Annapolis.

Veterans Day in Annapolis

Veterans Day in Annapolis – surrounded by our past and future military leaders

It was the confluence of these factors that made this past Veterans Day in Annapolis a reflective, emotional experience for me. In the past 2-½ years since my son left home for the Academy I have been given a remarkable, eye-opening and at times unwelcome education on military life.  I thought being a Navy Mom would be relatively easy since I grew up in a Navy household and we moved from Navy town to Navy town, always surrounded by other military families.  I was used to the vernacular, the uniforms, and the way of life. I still feel at home when on a Navy base.  My mother made being a Navy wife, with all the moves and separations and challenges, look easy.  She was incredibly organized and competent, and running our home efficiently was her talent and passion.  I felt I knew and understood the pitfalls of a military family more than most.

But I was never an active duty Navy wife, and it’s a whole new ball of wax sending your child off to the military.  I have come to a greater appreciation of the hardships military families face, although I fully realize I have thus far only peeked in the door.  Any military “education” I’ve obtained as the daughter of a Navy captain or the mother of a midshipman is still at the preschool level compared to lessons borne by other military families.  The fundamental shift for me in the past 2-½ years has been emotional, in that I am now the parent of one of the 2% of America’s sons and daughters that have committed themselves to defend our country in battle and have thus placed themselves in harms way.  Non-military families are genuinely thankful and appreciative for others military service but it is impossible to fully understand (I know I didn’t) without that very real potential personal sacrifice. (I wonder if compulsory military service for our young people should be seriously considered and would be a greater deterrent to war, but that’s a separate discussion).

Our son is my only child and we were intensely involved in every aspect of his upbringing.  He is one of the two most precious people in my life. But two weeks after his high school graduation, we accompanied him to Annapolis for Induction Day, where he took his oath of office, after which pride turned to sadness when we left him to return home.  It was arguably one of the hardest things either my son or I had ever done.  He was left to complete “Plebe Summer” on his own, an intensive 6-week training regimen, with minimal contact with the outside world.  For me, it was returning without him to an intensely quiet house, and the differences in routines, large and small that almost always included our son.  At first, it felt like a death in the family, particularly with no contact with him for Plebe Summer.  At a minimum, it was a pretty extreme college ‘launch”.

But our son survived Plebe summer just fine and so did we.  And we have learned through our son’s USNA career that everything has a purpose. The Navy is teaching and preparing midshipmen for future naval careers. It is taking teenage superstars who have achieved much individual success and is molding them into a cohesive organization of young men and women who will work effectively as a team, by breaking them down and then building them back up.  The breaking down part first involves separation from everything they are familiar with (including friends, family and surroundings), beginning with Plebe Summer and then building them back up through education, camaraderie and leadership within the Brigade.   It does give me comfort that they are being expertly prepared for what may come.  The Navy is also giving us family members an education in letting go.  Difficult as it seemed at the time, Plebe summer was in fact a harmless practice “deployment” designed to teach us to separate from our kids.

Following successful completion of Plebe Summer and the entire Plebe (freshman) year that followed, our son has thrived at the Academy, and we have thoroughly enjoyed his time at USNA.  We joined the local Annapolis Parents Club and have met and befriended other Navy parents who we find to be, without exception, salt of the earth folk. I am on Facebook and chat pages for USNA parents. There is an amazing support system and bond  amongst military families precisely because of the unique journey we have found ourselves on. We have visited Annapolis often for football games and visits.  We have watched our son grow in confidence and abilities.  Now that he is a junior, he is taking on more leadership responsibilities. A strong and confident young man has replaced that nervous boy that we shipped off two years ago.  I have never been more proud.

But I know that the Academy is a relatively safe place preparing him for a very dangerous world.  I know that our experience thus far has been deceptively comfortable.  As his graduation next year looms, my thoughts increasingly turn to the next steps in the journey, when he begins professional training (e.g., flight school if he becomes an aviator) and later deployment.  This will then be the real world with real dangers and I will be forced to fully open that door.

Our recent travel to Normandy, where I grieved the loss of so many other sons, our association with other Navy and Marine parents, many of whom are now in the deployment phase of their sons’ and daughters’ careers, our increased exposure to the military on our numerous trips to Annapolis, a growing sense of what lays ahead for us – all of these have combined to instill in me a deep respect for the military families who have come before me.  I connect more emotionally now to my father’s career with a spouse and three children at home, my mother as a military spouse managing a household on her own, my husband who during his active duty career lost fellow aviators in battle, and the countless military families across the country who bear their burdens daily.

I recently asked both my husband and son how a midshipman feels about his or her potential future involvement in war.  I wondered – is the prospect something to be feared, to be welcomed or something else?  Both said that war is part of their commitment, something they train for and are prepared for, and which they do not fear.  My son mentioned that so many people thank him for his service that he and his classmates feel an obligation to actually serve. Many of our Annapolis Parents Club friends who now have deployed sons or daughters describe an intense mix of pride and fear.  They tell me they can’t dwell on the dangers their kids are facing, but the gnawing fear in the stomach is never far away.  After much reflection this past Veterans Day, I would like to personally salute and thank our military families past and present for their bravery and sacrifice.  I admire them more than ever. That small kernel of anxiety that is just beginning to form in my stomach pales in comparison to the enormous pressures, difficulties and fears that remain their constant companions.  And in the end, I rely on our Heavenly Father for comfort and protection and come back to the words of “Eternal Father” also known as the Navy Hymn:

“Eternal Father, strong to save.  Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.  Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep,  Its own appointed limits keep;  Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.  Amen”

Ethics at the Naval Academy

Now that I got some vitriol off my chest (see previous post) regarding our last Annapolis weekend, I’d like to do some gushing about President’s Circle Weekend at the Naval Academy.   Specifically, one of my favorite experiences was attending a seminar entitled “Ethics at the Naval Academy.”

The US Naval Academy Seal

The US Naval Academy Seal

I had the option of 3 seminars, the other two being (1) Project Based Learning and (2) Athletic Excellence.  Both sounded interesting but less thought provoking. The topic of Ethics appeals to me for several reasons.  I have always been fascinated by the discussion of ethics, whether in the legal profession or the business world, and by how people apply ethical principles to difficult situations.  I was especially interested in how ethics is applied in military situations and what principles and frameworks are being taught to the Midshipmen. In order to obtain my law license, I was required to take a supplemental section of the Bar Exam on Legal Ethics  (no, that is not an oxymoron).   Ethics can be a rigorous form of mental gymnastics, trying to apply black and white principles to gray situations.  And where else are the situations as gray as the life or death decisions in the ambiguous modern world and our War on Terror?

The seminar was being held in the Planetarium in Luce Hall, which was cause for concern, since I always fall asleep in planetariums.   Inside was a distinguished looking professor and a panel of 4 midshipmen, 2 female and 2 male.  The professor introduced himself as CAPT Bill Rubel, USN (Ret), Distinguished Military Professor (which explains why he was distinguished looking). The Professor explained that the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law delivers a curriculum of over 35 core and elective courses in leadership, ethics, character and law that allow Midshipmen to better conceptualize military leadership and develop the skills critical to Officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, such as the ability to:

  • Understand human behavior as it pertains to leaders in military organizations.
  • Demonstrate increasingly complex applications of leader skills related to human behavior, character, ethics and military law.
  • Integrate, analyze, and evaluate acquired knowledge and experience, and effectively use it in the decision-making process.

OK, all sounds great, I thought, but is this something that’s really taken seriously (back to ethics in the law or in the business world)?  What followed was a freewheeling participative discussion by both the PC attendees and the panel of Midshipmen, led by the Distinguished Professor that absolutely blew my socks off.  The Professor rarely stated an opinion but kept us all talking and THINKING. We discussed the following topics, among others:

  • What is right?   What is wrong?
  • Can we teach ethics?
  • Why is there a disconnect between our thoughts about ethics and our actions?
  • Why do we do wrong when we know it is wrong?
  • Why do we do right?

At one point, one of the Mids (I wrote her name down because I was so impressed and I expect to see great things from her in the future) made an observation that really blew the entire room away.  After much discussion from the audience about how unprincipled young people are today, the Mid calmly and tactfully observed that her generation was raised by parents who would condone or at least tolerate cheating if it meant getting A’s and getting into the Ivy League school.

The Professor also showed a triangle to illustrate the 3 main, often competing, objectives in a military operation:

  • Complete the Mission
  • Protect Own Troops
  • Protect Innocent Non-Combatants

One of the other Mids shared that he and his company and room mates, based on the framework for ethical decisions that are taught at the Academy, often stay up until wee hours of the morning discussing different military and political scenarios and arguing what would be the right approaches and outcomes.

The last point the Professor made that I found impactful was a chart that demonstrated the components of effective leadership.  I didn’t snap a picture of it with my iPhone (I thought that might be unethical) so I don’t remember the specifics, but it listed the relative importance of the parties (e.g., country, team, etc.) and on the bottom was “self”.  The point being that an effective leader puts his or her self-interest last.  The Professor observed that this was what was so difficult about Plebe Summer.  Recently-graduated high school seniors, who were mostly hot-shots and superstars in their high school careers, show up at the Academy and the “self” gets knocked from first to last place, fairly abruptly and dramatically.  There was further discussion from the Mids about how, even though there is tremendous pressure at the Academy to succeed, there is also a leadership environment that encourages team rather than individual success.

I left the planetarium wide awake,  with that familiar mental gymnastics fatigue associated with ethical discussions, but a deep sense of hope that we have an upcoming generation of leaders who are schooled not only in technical aspects of military operations but the ethical and leadership facets as well.   It also made me wonder whether some of our country’s leadership problems stem from having fewer elected officials with military backgrounds, given that only 2% of the population is now serving in the military.  How about compulsory military service for politicians?