Foreword: This is a post about the Naval Academy, and is a departure from our regular programming. This is not a Naval Academy blog nor will it become one. I just happen to be in Annapolis for the weekend and this is what’s on my mind.
Spending the weekend in Annapolis to attend a wedding has sure brought back the memories. During this particular pilgrimage, I’ve knocked back a few Painkillers at Pusser’s, crashed at my sponsors’ place, had a Muehleisen down at the Drydock, and even went for an old favorite run. What has driven some especially vivid memories to surface, though, has been witnessing Plebe Summer in full swing.
For the uninitiated, Plebe Summer is the indoctrination phase of the Naval Academy, often described as the Academy’s boot camp. Having done both, the best way I can describe my own Plebe Summer experience is to say imagine Navy boot camp, but with tougher physical standards and lower professional standards, less firefighting and more shenanigans, operating under the protective bubble of safety/hazing/sexism/racism hyper-awareness—a function of the Academy’s stratospheric visibility. It’s not really accurate to call it the Naval Academy’s Boot Camp, though, since the first year as well as the entire Academy experience are each a sort of boot camp in their own regard.
This is an advice blog for new JOs, not a Naval Academy blog. That said, I know that at least some portion of my readership are midshipmen, some of whom are probably on Plebe Detail at USNA at this time. Since I’m in Annapolis at the moment and I have a few things to say on the subject, I think I can be forgiven for writing a post for those soon-to-be officers charged with indoctrinating our newest midshipmen. This one’s for the Cadre.
Your duty is sacred. Regardless of how ridiculous you may think it sounds, these are some of the most formative days your charges will ever experience. Every single thing you do in front of them is teaching them something, as you are their example of what a Midshipman—and by extension, an Officer— acts like. They have the rest of their careers to refine this image, but few individuals will have as much immediate and long-term influence on their behavior as you.
I’m not suggesting that they’re going to think that officers run around yelling and putting their subordinates in the leaning rest. I am saying that they will pick up on the energy and professionalism with which you attack your duties as their trainer, and this will frame their perception of the military and their personal pride for being a part of it. Even the priors– you are their introduction to what being an Officer is all about. Your attitude will be very contagious, and this awesome responsibility is going to stay with you for the rest of your career.
Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. You’ve probably spent several years waiting for the perfect opportunity to bust out some classic line from Full Metal Jacket, and it’s about to arrive. Trouble is, you aren’t R. Lee Ermey, and all of your plebes have seen Full Metal Jacket. If you try to force the act of some caricature, it’s going to come out all wrong and it will appear insincere. You’ve got to be yourself, even if it’s some twisted Bizarro version of yourself. Just concentrate on getting the job done, and your persona will formulate naturally.
Forget what was done to you. The Academy is overflowing with traditions, some of them magnificent and some of them idiotic. You don’t have to carry forward the idiotic ones. This is a great opportunity to influence the evolution of an institution, so don’t squander it by passively drifting in the gutter of that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done. If you think you’ve got a better way, act on it aggressively, and if your ideas are sound they will take hold and be carried forward.
Master Drill. Most of you will never use this skill again, except maybe to hold a sword in a friend’s wedding. During Plebe Summer, however, drill is a core competency, and not just for the Platoon Commanders. Every detailer ends up marching the platoon around at some point. If you’re terrible at drill, your plebes will notice, and they don’t have a lot of other ways to gauge your competence. If a couple of sessions with the Gunny on the parade field aren’t going to cut it, you need to work on this stuff on your own.
Don’t treat priors differently. One of the most important—and hardest—lessons for prior-enlisted midshipmen to learn is that their previous experience does not confer exceptional status. A few don’t ever accept this lesson, and it ends up crippling them professionally down the road. You can help to save them from this unfortunate outcome by being deliberately blind to their prior service. And if you think it’s hard to speak authoritatively to a plebe with a few medals, just wait until you meet your first division…
If, on the other hand, you have prior service, you should to fight the temptation to let that be the source of your authority, regardless of how valid it is. If you’re wearing a little chest candy, every one of your ribbons might as well have a Combat “V” on it as far as they are concerned. Indulging their admiration teaches the wrong lesson, and undermines your fellow Cadre who do not have prior service. Rather than entertaining the glowing questions about your history, let them know that the only thing that matters now is that you have several years of experience as a Midshipman that they do not—this is the lesson they need right now.
Don’t let their admiration phase you. The halls of Bancroft can be a bizarre and twisted version of reality. For most detailers, it won’t take long for the plebes to begin to develop a Stockholm Syndrome-like affection for you. You’ll find that all of your anecdotes are interesting, all of your jokes are funny, and all of your feats are heroic. Recognize that this is a fantasy land, and it is intoxicating, and you must not succumb to it by over-playing the “cool” part. Keep your professional distance—there will be ample opportunity to be cool during the academic year.
Use Grey Space Constructively. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the day-to-day job of plebe detail is a lot less training and a lot more ensuring that the company is at the right place at the right time and in the right uniform. This “babysitting” aspect of the job can be numbing and can quickly lead to burnout. One way to fight this burnout is to find constructive uses for the discretionary “grey space” in the schedule.
For example, I assigned each plebe a weapon or platform from Ships and Aircraft, which they each had to present to the company at the end of the summer. This fostered discussion of deep subjects like Strike Warfare and Strategic Deterrence which I doubt are part of the normal Plebe Summer experience. For another activity, rather than doing arm circles for hours, we reviewed case studies from my issued 3/c Ethics textbook. My favorite was the story of Iran Air Flight 655 as told from the point of view of the Vincennes, as a sobering reflection on the seriousness of our occupation and how quickly things can spiral out of control.
Keep it in context. Bringing it back to the Fleet on occasion can be a very appropriate foil to all the ridiculous antics, but there is a balance you have to manage. If you try too hard and get too serious too frequently about matters of life or death, you’ll look ridiculous– like you’re trying to play out some scene you saw in a movie. You’re not creating warriors right now– that is what the next four years and follow-on training are for. You’re creating Midshipmen, which is a different skill set requiring different methods.
Anyone can make someone quit. There are always a few midshipmen who think that it is their solemn duty to decide who is or is not worthy of becoming an Officer, and to see to it that the unworthy never do. This trait can manifest itself in especially nasty ways during Plebe Summer, when a bunch of raw recruits are thrown into a confusing and humiliating situation and are completely at your mercy for guidance. Demoralizing an individual to the point that they no longer see military service as a worthy occupation does not require talent, does not honor your service, and is not your job.
The decision about who is and is not worthy of admission was made through a fairly involved process by people who are far above your paygrade. You may not agree with the methods or their results, but your job is now to turn their bad decision into a good one (hint: it won’t be the last time). You’ve got to work with what you’ve got, and make it shine. One of my proudest moments was seeing my “fat kid,” who nobody thought was going to make it, cross the finish line for the PRT with at time of 10:05. I don’t get credit for his achievement, but at the time I felt like it was me crossing that line.
It is not always so simple. Maybe you’ve got the guy who is a constant discipline problem, or the girl who is there just because she’s from a Navy family and doesn’t appear to have genuine interest in the military, or the nancy-boy who constantly makes up a new injury every time things get a little bit physical. It’s your job to fix it, and one solution will not fit all. You may not succeed, but deciding for yourself that they shouldn’t make it is tantamount to giving up. Before judging them too harshly, remember that you’re seeing them at their very worst, and that they will mature a great deal during the next few years. You did.
I recognize the apparent absurdity of speaking in such serious terms about something that most people take about as seriously as a fraternity’s Rush Week. When I did it, I had a lot of fun as a plebe detailer, as there is much fun to be had. The things I handled well are still some of my proudest achievements, and the things I handled poorly still haunt me today. It’s one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences you’ll have at that institution, and the most important job you’ll ever get as a Mid. Don’t waste it.