The needs of the military, the desires of your child

Two things happened this week, both related to the United States Naval Academy and while I could have addressed them on my USNA blog, I feel compelled to share them here. The theme is simple, drawn from a classic Rolling Stones tune …

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you’ll find
You get what you need.

Keith Richards/Mick Jagger

The first thing that happened was the culmination of a few weeks of phone calls and texts with a Plebe mom (USAFA translation, Plebe = Doolie). Without sharing too many details since the conversations were obviously private, her Plebe had a physical setback and despite following all protocols and excelling in the classroom, was being directed to take a leave of absence (LOA, different, of course than the other LOA, letter of assurance) and return in the summer with the class of 2027.

The emotions were raw and with good reason. You’d probably have better odds of getting struck twice by lightning than returning from an LOA at one of our military academies. From the sounds of it, both mother and Plebe did everything possible to put the Plebe in a position to stay. The mom was on the phone with her Plebe constantly and went to Annapolis for a weekend to give the kind of support only a mom could give.

The Plebe had all the documentation imaginable. There were recommendations from faculty members praising their excellent work and notes from doctors at the highest level saying they were on track for the timeline everyone agreed to at the outset of the issue.

I traded messages with the mom the evening before THE meeting that would settle it all. She felt great. Her Plebe remained steadfast in their commitment to stick it out and stay with the Class of 2026. All the documentation was in order.

After a few days of intense back and forth, I experienced radio silence. Then this text:

“Karl, thank you for all of your guidance and most especially your kindness. [My Plebe] is taking the LOA.”

I stopped and re-read that line again. She said her Plebe had a spot with the class of 2027 if they wanted it and then quite bravely said:

“Life is about circumstances and challenges and how you either decide to comeback or pivot.”

Her kid wanted to be at USNA. Badly. They loved it. They loved the challenge, they loved the path, they loved the mission. They had overcome all the obstacles and challenges to get there and had followed every directive after their setback. Now they are headed home to re-evaluate all of it.

At the same time, the USNA Class of 2023 received their service selection assignments, one of the most exciting moments in any Midshipman’s tenure and the same feeling our own cadets anticipate. That meant both my personal Facebook and Instagram feeds and the feeds from various USNA-related Facebook groups were flooded with beaming Firsties posted by parents bursting with pride and joy.

Most of them included the same basic themes – couldn’t be prouder … dream come true … always wanted this. For those people, I was happy. But I know that wasn’t all of them. And as I’ve written before, as a parent, you have to be prepared for both the best outcome (your Firstie gets exactly what they want) and other outcomes.

What can the latter mean? Well, all the Firsties list their top 5 choices in order. A dear friend’s son got choice number 5. Our own experience wasn’t quite as devastating but still carried some disappointment,.

My son entered the Naval Academy not knowing exactly what he wanted to study or what warfare community interested him. Academically, he found cyber operations and fell in love with it. Combining of his passion for computers and the internet with his interest in “peeking behind the curtain,” it inspired him. His summer trainings proved useful. He took submarine cruises because he had learned about the “sub draft,” where despite what you thought you wanted to do, USNA helped you learn what you really wanted to do was become a submarine officer. His experience – good people, great mission.

As a 2/C, he fully embraced cyber and earned a summer internship at Microsoft with the famed “Ghostbusters” group that combats cyber bad guys. He had found his people. When he returned to Annapolis, he worked with his professors and officers to try to secure his path to Cyber Warfare. All of them assured him that’s where he was headed. No doubt about it.

Except he wasn’t.

Service selection came and he learned he would be Semper Deep. It took him a full 24 hours to grasp what it meant.

Now, a lot of folks will puff up and deliver a lecture along the lines of “Well, that’s what they signed up for. The needs of the Navy come first. After all, they got a free education at a world-class institution.”

They are right (except for the “free” education part, but that is another story). That does not make it any easier.

If your kid is at USAFA pursuing a lifelong dream of being an Air Force pilot and they wind up in a missile silo, they will be disappointed. Will they do the work diligently? Of course they will. Will they try to be best officer they can be? Of course they will. Will they always wonder what life would be like if they were awarded a spot as a pilot? Of course they will.

Those on the civilian college path rarely get their dream job out of school. But their options are much broader. Take that first job and immediately begin looking for another organization that will put them on the path they truly desire. Sorry military academy graduates, you’ll be waiting several years before you can even consider another organization.

Civilian graduates – take that first job and begin working hard to find another opportunity within the organization that better fits their goals. Sorry, military academy graduates, you’ll be in this role for at least several years. I talked to my son about the possibility of a lateral transfer to cyber after his 5-year commitment ended. Long story short, no dice. He’d probably have to serve another 5 years in the Silent Service before being considered for such a move.

Does that mean he’ll do a Five And Dive? Not necessarily. He’s on his first long-term deployment and, like a lot of junior officers, getting his back end kicked by the blistering pace and volume of work. He’ll likely do two more deployments before he has to make a decision and remains quite open to the possibility that he’ll love it and want to stay on. Only time will tell.

The same holds true for the aforementioned Plebe, which brings us back to the theme. Getting into USAFA or USNA or West Point is a great accomplishment, an honor not to be trivialized. It is not, however, the end nor a guarantee of all your dreams coming true.

As we pause for Thanksgiving this week, I remain thankful for all the opportunities our Cadets and Midshipmen enjoy and for the lessons they will learn, even the hard ones they (and their families) may not understand. While not all will get what they want, we remain hopeful they will all get what they need.

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