The two best pieces of advice you can give to someone who’s about to head off to Plebe Summer are to keep a sense of humor, and to remain anonymous as long as possible. Don’t do anything that will make a detailer remember you. For my plebe summer roommate, that second part was a bit of a problem.
It wasn’t any fault of his own, really. He is the best athlete I’ve ever known, recruited to play both soccer and lacrosse. When you are that high-profile of a recruit, the detailers already know who you are. Everyone ends up getting some time in the “spotlight” eventually during Plebe Summer, but my roommate had the honor of being first. When the detailers wanted to drop the platoon for pushups, it wasn’t unusual to hear the process begin with one of them yelling, “You’re just here to play lacrosse!”
Fast forward a few years to 2003. In his book, Recruiting Confidential, David Claerbaut chronicles the college recruiting process experienced by his stepson, Chicago running back James Velissaris. James committed to the Naval Academy, and his family made the trip with him to Annapolis to see him sworn in on I-Day. When it came time to take the oath, though, James didn’t do it. Reading over the commitment papers, he felt that he was only there to play football; to him, that wasn’t reason enough to sign. Velissaris would end up playing for Harvard.
Two different stories, but with similar themes: sports as the primary motivation in choosing to attend the Naval Academy. As I was reading James Velissaris’ story, the same thought occurred to me as when I would hear my Plebe Summer detailers barking at my roommate: is there really anything wrong with that?
June has arrived. It is the time when a select group of high school seniors across the country are about to trade the cap and gown of the graduate for the dixie cup and whiteworks assigned to the Naval Academy’s lowest of the low. Included in this group preparing for the challenge of Plebe Summer are the athletes recruited to fill out the rosters of Navy’s several varsity sports. On I-Day, these athletes are going to face decisions of their own. Like James Velissaris, they might find themselves questioning their own motives. They shouldn’t. It is perfectly acceptable that being recruited to play a varsity sport would be someone’s main attraction to the Naval Academy. It should be expected, and in a lot of ways, encouraged.
Plenty of Academy alums would bristle at that thought. Some of these graduates seem to think that every midshipman-to-be that passes through the gates of USNA does so because each one of them is driven to have a career as a Navy or Marine Corps officer. Some of them are. Or at least they think they are. Let’s be real, now; how many 18 year-olds coming straight out of high school really have any idea what it means to be an officer in the Naval Service? I am a third-generation Academy graduate and spent my entire childhood surrounded by all things Navy. I thought I had a pretty good idea going into I-Day. It took all of 15 minutes of Plebe Summer for me to realize that I didn’t know squat. If most grads would take an honest look at their own experience, they’d probably admit the same thing. If a person doesn’t truly understand what being a Naval officer entails, then he can’t truly be dedicated to a Naval career from day one. It’s unfair to expect otherwise.
In fact, the Navy itself doesn’t expect it. Have you seen Navy advertising on television? A recent Navy ad shows three Navy officers who turned their Navy experience into successful civilian careers. All branches of the military use college money and other benefits to bring people to the recruiting office. The Marine Corps sells itself as an exclusive club. It’s true, obviously; but it’s also secondary to to what being a Marine really means.
There is a bit of a double standard at work here, too. Many of the same graduates and onlookers who cringe when a recruit says that he came to play football have no problem with other reasons that a midshipman might give. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain when a mid says that he came to USNA for the quality of the education. When someone comes to Annapolis because his father or brother or sister did, it’s generally regarded as a heartwarming nod to family tradition. How are these reasons any different? The Naval Academy does a lot to make itself attractive to applicants as a school. Athletics are a part of that, as are academic programs, extracurriculars, traditions, etc. Coming for any of these reasons is no different than coming to play a sport. None of them are the same thing as saying, “I want to be a Navy or Marine Corps officer.”
Those who question the mindset of these soon-to-be midshipmen need to remember the mission of the institution. It is not the job of the high school senior to be dedicated to a career of naval service; it is the job of the Naval Academy to motivate him to do so. As long as coaches are upfront with kids on the recruiting trail about the challenge that lies ahead, there really is no bad reason to come to USNA. That’s why the Navy is comfortable advertising about how it can help jumpstart a civilian career. Those who want to use their Navy experience to do so, can. But some of those people brought in by that ad might find that a Navy career is more rewarding than they realized, and they’ll stick around for a while. There’s a cliche at the Academy about how the guys who’d swear they would be in for life end up getting out as soon as their commitment is up, and the guys who’d swear they would get out as soon as possible end up becoming admirals. There’s some truth to that; no matter what you think going in, it isn’t until you’ve actually experienced the life of a Naval officer that you’d know if it is for you. Very few of these young men and women about to take the oath really know what’s waiting for them on the other side, but they’re willing to give it a try. The country needs people who are willing to give it a try, even if it doesn’t always work out in the end.
We should be thankful for each and every one of those who will raise their right hand on June 27th, regardless of why they’re doing it.