Even before last November’s presidential election, Americans were saying they felt more divided as a nation than ever. The past several months have done little to ease many peoples’ raw nerves.
That’s why I truly wish you could have been with me at this summer’s moving induction of 1,215 first-year students, called “plebes,” into the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis, Md. Why? Because the USNA’s Class of 2021 plebes, purposely from all 50 U.S. states plus 14 friendly foreign nations, truly reflect all of us and, in particular, what continues to make our nation great.
Frankly, my wife and I felt fortunate to be standing on the USNA’s beautiful campus to witness the sea of young, white-clad plebes pledging to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. Just three days earlier, after months on the USNA’s waitlist, our daughter Lauren had been offered a late-breaking opportunity to become the final entrant in this year’s USNA class. Now, amazingly, here we all were.
Lauren’s “yes” to the USNA put in motion a 40-hour whirl of activity of the type that others had weeks to do: quitting her summer grocery job, lopping off locks of hair, completing stacks of paperwork, verifying immunizations, saying farewell to family and friends, and completing her remaining graduation gift thank-you notes. Within two days, we were flying to Maryland.
The immediacy of Lauren’s rapid USNA prep reflects the unique culture of the U.S. service academies. Unlike with “regular” colleges, which usually require a day or two of student orientation, entrance to the USNA comes with a stipulation of immediate tough love and deprivation, amid the summer swelter of coastal Maryland. It’s all part of the USNA’s mission to “develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty.”
Once they swear to the USNA’s Oath of Office and say a quick goodbye to their attending families, the plebes march off to six-plus weeks of relentless basic training, dubbed Plebe Summer. For the plebes, there’s no access to television, the internet or their cellphones, and no trips off-campus to the local CVS or Target. Just day after day within the USNA’s walled campus, with upper-class “detailers” alternately instructing and hollering at them from reveille until lights out.
With requirements like these, the USNA isn’t for everyone. “It’s hard,” admitted Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr., the 62nd superintendent of the USNA, as he addressed the plebes at their induction. “We call this program here pressure with a purpose. This program is about teaching you followership, before we can give you the principles of leadership.”
But Carter also noted the willingness of the assembled plebes to answer a higher calling, of service to their nation, in line with the thinking of U.S. naval commander and Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones, considered the father of the U.S. Navy. Carter quoted Jones’ words in 1777: “The stature of our homeland is no more than the measure of ourselves. Our job is to keep her free. Our will is to keep the torch of freedom burning for all. To this solemn purpose we call on the young, the brave, the strong, and the free.”
Thus, as we and some 4,000 other parents, family members and friends strained to glimpse our plebes as they took their oaths, we were united in a belief that a greater good can come from all of us coming together, whatever our differences. These plebes, 37 percent nonwhite (equal to the U.S. population), represent exactly the type of nation we aspire to be: an America where hard work, teamwork and a willingness to sacrifice for each other — and ultimately our country — are what truly matters most.
Small wonder then, as I looked at the faces of other parents during the induction ceremony, I saw a joyous commingling of hope and excitement — for the future of these young adults, and that of our nation.
“I have goose bumps on my arms,” said the woman standing next to me, a mom from Florida seeing off her only son. I knew exactly what she meant. “I do, too,” I said.
Sean McDonnell, a communications consultant and part-time firefighter, lives in Plymouth.