How do We Find the Way Forward from Here?

Based on the book, A USNA Mom’s Journal: Plebe Summer through Commissioning and Beyond! What You Need to Know, by AN Shine.

A word that I have heard a lot in the past few weeks is grace – give each other grace as we all navigate these circumstances that are unprecedented, uncharted waters, and that affect not only us individually, or our community, or state, or even nation, but the entire world!

I have been trying to keep that in mind as we begin each day. Our family had been keeping fingers crossed but at the same time trying to maintain a realistic  yet cautiously optimistic perspective of the near future. We were patiently expecting news about the 2020 Commissioning amid the CoVID-19 shut down. The good thing about waiting is that I have to depend on God. The bad (or good) thing about waiting is that it always leads me to introspection and so, I began to reminisce about the past years that our family has shared by the Bay.  

Our family has traveled almost seven years down the unique and challenging path that is USNA. For our current Midshipman, the journey has been a little more challenging than most…

Just like any USNA parent, I can still remember the hug on I-Day. It was me that did not want to let go, yet somehow I found the strength to do so to let our precious son and daughter follow their grandfather to forge their own individual path as a Midshipman at the Naval Academy.  I had prayed for months for the composure that I would need for this day, but it was difficult to follow through on my pledge to “hold it together” both times! Our son was a Firstie when our daughter was a Plebe and that gave us some comfort. Knowing more or less what the journey would be the second time around was also encouraging.  I watched through the lens of my camera, which has always been a refuge of sorts, as she walked down the sidewalk by Alumni Hall until she walked through the doors and disappeared from sight. Deep breath!

We would not see her again for another almost seven hours, having been delayed in processing and arriving at Bancroft on the second to last bus (pre Garage and Hopper Hall construction).  I detail the whole story in my book. Her group ran so late that she barely made it to her deck, threw her issues on the P-way floor and ran to the Oath of Office ceremony. When we finally got to speak with her after the Oath she mentioned how she almost did not make it to the ceremony. The proudest moment was hearing the “I Do!” reverberating throughout the courtyard. The hardest moment was the intense sound of the heavy bronze doors at the entrance to Bancroft slam shut. They would not walk through those doors again until after they commission…

We survived Plebe Summer and were reunited during PPW – another unforgettable hug and this time a big smile.  She began Plebe year involved in a Varsity team and a time intensive ECA (Extra Curricular Activity). Then an unexpected injury – an ACL tear mid fall of Plebe year with a long but successful recovery.  Then came a month-long stay in the hospital in December of 2/C year. Her tenacity, perseverance, and courage call to my mind the motto “Don’t Give Up the Ship”. In the hospital it was her strength, courage, and our prayers to God for strength that sustained us all. We were also encouraged by the prayers, visits, meals, and encouragement  from our cherished Navy family.  

I have also had the privilege of meeting the most amazing people and making the most precious friendships with fellow Moms and fellow parents, Alumni, Sponsors, Staff, Officers, and Senior Enlisted that remind me of the Core Values of USNA and the Navy: Honor, Courage, Commitment.  Some friends have suffered immense loss yet are a beacon of light to all around them; friends that took me under their wing and taught my family and me what we needed to know to survive; friends that are my battle and prayer buddies that I can turn to and count on when things get tough; and friends that did not finish the journey for one reason or another, but we are still bound by the friendship and common experiences to this day.  

The experience of the journey – Plebe Summer, Plebe Year, and milestones along the way – weave a common tapestry of the highs and lows, of unexpected challenges, of difficulties but also of victories, camaraderie and unity, tradition and discipline, that are a part of the USNA  journey. But we have also come to understand that sometimes the only constant in our journey is change. Whether it is a change of arrival or departure dates, a change in orders or responsibilities, or a change in circumstances. Change is our constant companion. 

With that said, change does not always yield the desired results for us as parents nor for our Midshipmen. In our current situation, a stop movement order has our Mids at home or wherever they find themselves completing their ACYear via distance learning.  It is a testament to the resilience and dedication of our Mids and the staff at USNA that the transition has been successful. Yet as our Mids continue to grow academically, in their leadership roles, and even socially as they gather through Hangouts and Zoom, the culmination of their time at the Academy will be radically different than tradition dictates: without a Commissioning Week or what we perceive as a traditional Commissioning ceremony.  

I know that we are currently in an unprecedented time with CoVID-19. Social Distancing and trying to prevent further spread of this disease is our priority and our duty, but it still stings and disappoints that the “Virus that Shall Not Be Named” has taken from our children and from us parents the celebrations and traditions that mark their great accomplishments and that culminate the hard work and sacrifice of the past four years by the Bay.  Now that does not mean they will not commission or graduate. It will happen albeit in a different way.

But it also calls to mind, that we are in a way at war – at war with this virus, at war with daily habits that can further the spread; at war with our social traditions in order to protect ourselves and others. I feel a kind of kindred to those that have walked the path before us, the Greatest Generation – who fought at home and overseas for a common purpose, and this may be the only time that we experience something like this, all of us together at the same time. Our children who will be headed to the Fleet in the near future and we, are getting a glimpse of what it means to have a sense of duty and sacrifice in some sense. In our case we are giving up our daily routines, our freedom to got to work or school, our freedom to move about, our freedom to gather together…and more.

This experience reminds me of deployment and how things can change unexpectedly. Our oldest’s deployment was extended by a month at the last minute and he and his shipmates spent Christmas floating in the ocean near a distant land when they would have been closer to home.  We did not know where they were or what circumstances they were facing (sometimes ignorance is bliss). We also learned very well the meaning of OPSEC as we kept things to ourselves and out of public discourse. We were not able to speak or email with our son for weeks and months on end. We learned to figure out that no news is good news…  

I am also reminded of how every step is preparation for what is to come.  As parents we have supported, encouraged, and cheered for our Mids as they have traversed the various stages and aspects of the USNA journey.  The bottom line is that we were blessed to raise children that have a heart for service, a heart for others, and a heart for our nation. “Others before Self” is a part of who they are and we are fortunate to have shared in their life, their growth as individuals and adults, and to have been witnesses to the amazing transformation that has occurred between I-Day and this day.

The silver lining that none of us want to claim? Time. Time with our kids when we should have had little to none.  Time to enjoy their company, to get a glimpse into their daily schedule, to see their smile or their disappointment first hand.  For those of us with Officers in the fleet, we do not have that opportunity very often. But does that make up for the disappointment of no Commissioning Week? No, of course not. But I do guarantee that as parents, when our children are deployed and in harm’s way, we will wish for the days when we were “stuck” at home and that we will look upon these days with gratitude and longing.  

Some other “silver linings”?  Our Class of 2020 will be the first class to “enjoy” online classes, to have lived through a worldwide shutdown, to learn about and practice Social Distancing, and many others firsts, the most important of which is to be commissioned quite possibly, virtually. It will also be the first class in a long time, if ever, to not commission nor celebrate together and quite possibly, the Class of 2020 may never again be gathered together, which is indeed heartbreaking…

I can’t begin to think how excruciating it must have been for our new Supe (what a way to start your watch!) to make the decision to cancel Commissioning Week activities. I also can’t fathom the number of hours, meetings, and heart rending choices that went into making that decision.  

I can’t deny that I had my pity party and cried tears of bitter disappointment, not as much for me as for my Firstie and her classmates.  Yet after speaking with her, I felt a calm wash over me. Yes, she was disappointed, but she was moving forward. This made me think and realize that if my Firstie is strong enough to take it in stride then I better be that strong too.  Many times I look at my Firstie and am amazed. She seems to  have nerves of steel, thinks everything through, does what needs to be done, is tenacious, and will not give up. She has been through hell and back and she is still standing. But then again, that is our Brigade of Midshipmen – they will not be daunted and will not be deterred from their duty and their mission.  

The mission of the Naval Academy is to “ Develop Midshipmen, morally mentally, and physically, and imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor,  and loyalty in order to graduate leaders … to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship, and government.” They are not perfect, and yes, they are still “kids” in many ways. They do not make perfect choices, but then again, who does? The key is: do they learn for their mistakes? Yes, I believe in my heart that they do. And I can’t think of a better group of young people, our Midshipmen of the Class of 2020, to overcome the adversity before them and to go on to become great leaders and accomplish great things! That goes for 2021, 2022, and 2023, who are all making sacrifices of their own.

And although I am disappointed for my Mid more than for myself, I fully understand and support the decision of the Academy.  The Class of 2020 may not have necessarily started out as the most united class, but I believe that we will be the most united and most resilient class going forward.  The Class of 2020 has a bright future full of opportunities and hopefully we will all find out one day in the not so distant future, that all of this, what our Firsties and we, their parents, have gone through has helped to mold us all for the path ahead and to make us stronger and kinder people. 

Like Karl Smith, my fellow 2020 parent, I have spent many a sleepless night trying to conjure up a way that our Firsties can come together for Commissioning.  A staggered arrival by Company to limit the number of people per deck, Commissioning ceremonies by Company – that would be 30 ceremonies?! Return Firsties only back on the Yard to Commission on Worden Field and vacate their quarters. 2/Cs 3/Cs can stay in their current quarters for Plebe Summer and incoming Plebes would take the Firstie quarters…How about current Plebes? Who knows!  For Firsties and Mids from California, Southwest, Midwest (you get the jist) – how would they vacate their quarters? Do they drive everything back to California? Are there hotels on the way to rest -do you even take the risk or do you drive straight through? Or, throw everything in a storage facility and deal with it later – assuming they are even open for business by May… so many unknowns and variables. I honestly do not envy the USNA leadership’s job in the least!  

So as we patiently wait for the plan and logistics from USNA, I want to encourage every fellow parent to enjoy the gift of time that we have been given with our Mids – as much as we and they may not want it.  We can take our cues from our Firsties and move forward as difficult as it may be.

And finally, here is to the Class of 2020: “If we can’t find a way, we will make one” – I know that you will!  May you have Fair Winds and Following Seas whenever, however and wherever your path takes you. May God Bless You and Protect You All! GO NAVY!

Commissioning Procession 2017

Based on the book, A USNA Mom’s Journal: Plebe Summer through Commissioning and Beyond! What You Need to Know by AN Shine. Copying in whole or in part without the prior written consent of the author is strictly prohibited. Copyright 2019.