By AN Shine in collaboration with Kathleen Rohrs
To say this has been an unusually difficult year for our midshipmen would be an understatement. CoVid restrictions, virtual classes, ROM, limited contact, post office issues, loss of liberty, no spring break, limited outside food options, the list goes on and on. Our Mids, especially the plebes, have had to work really hard to stay motivated and positive.
“Old timers” like my Dad will say they had it tough too, and they did. But the difficulties faced by current Midshipmen are on a whole different level. A worldwide pandemic, extensive isolation, restrictions, boredom, reduced physical activity, and a lot of uncertainty. The current conditions at the academy remind me so much of when our oldest was deployed. His shipmates and sailors faced very similar obstacles, sans the pandemic. The situation in Syria required his ship to stay on extended deployment. No port calls, no leave. Communications were all but non-existent, and tensions were high. Fortunately, I found all of this out after the fact. Outside of the standard news coverage, we had no idea what was happening. which was not good. Having learned to take things with a grain of salt, we patiently waited to hear from our oldest clinging to the adage “no news is good news”. At the time, ignorance was bliss.
For the current classes of 2021 through 2024 at least communications are up and running. They can communicate with their families which can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to be able to talk with them every day, but it’s difficult to listen to the ups and downs. Especially the downs, the frustrations, the struggles, the uncertainties, the emotions. As a parent, it’s difficult to just sit and listen and to find words of encouragement. We don’t know what to say, why decisions were made, what obstacles leadership is facing. We just want to fix it! We have always been the advocates and have always resolved things on behalf of or with our kids. Sadly, this time around parents are out of the loop. All we can do is to listen, allow them to vent, try to help them look at the silver lining, dust them off, and encourage them to move forward.
With all of the hits to morale caused by the past year of CoVid, what does the decision to “shotgun” the Youngsters and Plebes mean for them? First, let’s define what shotgunning actually is. You may hear two terms – shotgun and scramble. Scrambling is when a company’s group of Plebes, Youngsters, etc. are moved together, as a unit, to a new company. Shotgunning – refers to scattering the all of the companies’ groups of Plebes, etc. and sending them individually to all different companies – just like firing a shotgun where all of the pellets go in different directions. Hence the name.
It is helpful to look at why the decision may have been made. Many times these actions are taken because leadership themselves went through one of these options and think it is beneficial. Perhaps leadership is looking to develop new cultures within each company by allowing an infusion of new individuals with different attitudes and perspectives that may help to create those new company cultures. Or perhaps with all the ROM, there are two things that could happen with all of the time spent together – Plebes / Mids either grow closer in camaraderie OR they get on each other’s nerves. They could also be trying to minimize any effects from being in close quarters… It is not certain as to what the leadership had in mind this time around, but I do know the Youngsters and Plebes are wondering what happened and are now dealing with one more thing.
So let’s look at what being shotgunned means for the Class of 2023 and 2024. What good can possibly come out of it?
- It allows Plebes and Mids to begin with a clean slate. At times, and this happens to all of us, we create a reputation for ourselves based on our attitudes, what and how we choose to do things, or simply because of personality conflicts. For most, this may not be an issue, but for many it can be. It affects their aptitude ratings and the way they are viewed within their company for one reason or another, especially with their classmates. Shotgunning offers them a fresh start.
- It helps them to learn to adapt to a new style of leadership and to a different culture. Just as each company has a different culture and things are “company dependent” so it goes with ships, squadrons, battalions, units, commands, duty stations, you name it in the Big Navy or Marine Corps. It is good to develop flexibility and learn to go with the flow when change comes along, and it will approximately every two or so years. Some changes in culture may be drastic – going from an empowering commanding officer who allows his charges freedom (within bounds) to fail and learn. Sometimes the change may be to a commanding officer who is a micromanager that disempowers or has a “punitive” management style. Just as we are all different, so are management styles in the Navy and in real life. The more our Mids see and experience these different management styles, the better prepared they will be to deal with these challenges – professionally and personally.
- It helps them to adjust to what Fleet life will be like. As much as we don’t want to hear it, as parents of kids who may be miserable right now, preparing to serve in the Fleet is the overarching objective and the reason our kids decided to forego civilian college and are active duty military personnel at USNA, training to be officers in the Navy or Marine Corps.
- It helps them to develop more friendships, extend their networks, and know more people on the Yard. Yup! I get it – this may sound very corny, but it is true. Friends and roomies will remain true friends,as a bonus they will get to add more close friendships to their USNA network.
- It helps them to understand and deal with the fact that the only constant in military service is change. This may be one of the most relevant truths they will learn. This past year has been full of uncertainty from beginning to end. As Naval or Marine Corps officers the uncertainty will continue regardless of where they go in life, but we truly believe they will be so much better prepared to face these obstacles because of their experience during the past year and going forward.
- It should help them to develop a positive, outward outlook instead of an inward, negative perspective. Helping others to adjust, bringing what you have learned to where you are, helping to make things better, more effective, more efficient based on observations elsewhere are all possibilities. They can become agents for positive change based on prior experience, whether positive or negative. The bottom line – as I always tried to instill in my own children – is not to think “Why me?” but to think “what can I learn?” What can I do differently to help change the outcome? If they can’t change the outcome, then what can they do to better survive it? Because change will ultimately come again and again.
What about the negative things that can happen? Below are the ones I can think of:
- They will be miserable and unhappy to be away from their friends and from everything they have known at the Academy so far. The familiar will become unfamiliar. In this case, if you are a person of faith, pray by yourself, and pray with your son or daughter. We were always very cognizant of doing this with our Mids and invariably they felt better. If you have my book, A USNA Mom’s Journal, there is a prayer that a fellow Mom and I wrote from my list of things to pray that can be adapted to any year, and that may be helpful in addressing their grievances with God. Ask God to go before them preparing the way, showing them the right path, giving them strength and patience, and lighting the way forward.
- They may have a difficult time adapting to the new leadership style or culture in their new company. This is a part of building resilience. Doing the things that are hard. Our children have chosen the hard path – in essence, the path of most resistance. They will need to put their game face on and push through the tough times. Not just at USNA or the Navy or Marine Corps, but in life. As parents, I strongly believe it is our job to get real with our Mids, encourage them, point out the “silver linings”, get them out of their pity party, and help to equip them to face their obstacles and overcome them. For those of you that know me and my family – you know what I am talking about.
- They may end up in a situation that is not as good or favorable. Yes, for sure. If this is the case, resilience, learning through and from their situations, and enduring what seems to be unendurable is the key. Send inspiring stories for them (and you) to read. Unbreakable and Lone Survivor for example. And know that change will come, it’s inevitable. There is always light at the end of the tunnel just as sure and dawn follows night. As parents we can support them through it and pray that those changes are favorable.
In this case, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. From personal experience with our 2020 whose class was scrambled, I can tell you unequivocally that her class should have been shotgunned. It would have been better for many members of the class who for whom the familiarity of being with their company mates a liability and would have benefited from an opportunity to make a fresh start.
Know that many are praying for all Parents, Youngsters, and Plebes alike, that God would give you comfort and strengthen you for the road ahead. In the end, it may not end up being as bad as you think.
Always here if you need! Be Semper Gumby and GO NAVY!!
A big thanks to Kathleen for her help with writing this post. Kathleen Rohrs is an Alumni spouse, USNA Mom, USNA Sponsor, and USNA employee. A big thanks also to Alicia Lynch Switzer for her insights.