I am a graduate of the mighty class of 1999 from the United States Naval Academy. While I was there, I was less than a model midshipman. I was a lousy student. I struggled to follow the thousands of ridiculous rules and finished in the bottom of my class. I made a lot of friends though. And had a lot less fun than most college kids have at college. But it was worth it. Of that, I am sure.
Getting yourself into and out of trouble at a service academy is an art form. Some master it better than others. The night before the Army/Navy game in 1997, a bunch of kids from 19th Company, my company, decided to do something stupid. What isn’t important. I don’t even remember what it was to be honest. But we were all put on lock down for the weekend.
The next day we all got on a bus and drove to Giants Stadium to go sit in the stands and cheer our team on, in uniform, as has been the tradition for a century. Afterward, while the rest of the school went on liberty and spent the night in New York, we got back on the bus and drove back to Maryland.
In protest, a few of us wore luau shirts under our uniform jackets so that the ridiculous pastel patterns would muddy up the pure black sea of midshipmen coats at the end of the stadium. After halftime, a giant banner unfurled from the deck above us with the words “Free 19” on it-an effort to gain our freedom.
My roommate and I were from New Jersey and this was Giants stadium. This lock down was going to cost us a lot of fun. This was our protest. Our cause: Beer and partying. And no one cared that a bunch of boys from Annapolis were disrespecting the uniform in service to missing out on partying. On the contrary, it started a tradition. Free 19 is a phrase that lives on to this day at Annapolis.
Last week 16 of the 17 African American women in the 2016 graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point posed for pictures in their uniforms. In one of the photos, they raised their right fists. Shortly after, the Army conducted an investigation into whether or not the women violated DOD regulations prohibiting political displays while in uniform-African Americans with raised right fists being a symbol of the “Black Lives Matter Movement”.
Within days, they were all cleared of any formal offense. No punitive actions were taken against them. There’s still a bit of a political debate going on. So I’d like to take a little time to explore my point of view on it.
Rules prohibiting military personnel from displaying political support as official representatives of the military are important, maybe about as important as any rule the military has. Those rules affirm a critically important thing about our military and our society. That we have a force of arms, completely separate from the political process, entirely under the command of civilian elected officials and therefore formed entirely in service to the American people.
The military serves the people. And as a result, we enjoy a society where the American people have lived free of fear from the most destructive man-made force the world has ever seen. So those rules are important.
If there’s one thing that I can absolutely assure you, all sixteen of those cadets are aware of that now, if they weren’t a few weeks ago. The military has a good way of making you realize when you’ve wandered off the path. The Army was doing it’s job to ensure that critical rule was recognized in what I think was an important, teachable moment. Not because of the nature of the movement in question but because the rule matters that much.
That’s a very important distinction.
I’d like to take a moment to respond to some of the more offended folks I’ve seen take this topic to task though. Because there’s some mad people out there. And I’d like to address them. If a lack of punishment here bothered you deeply, you probably didn’t go to a service academy-West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. If you did, you probably weren’t a woman that graduated from one of them. And if you were, you probably weren’t a woman of color.
This year, at West Point, 17 out of about a thousand graduates were African American women. Which means that for the four toughest years of their lives, and the lives of most people they will run into, one had to fill a room with 75 classmates before statistically, one could expect the 76th to look like them. And that’s hard. Because we don’t tend to give people that aren’t like us the same leeway. Even if it’s not on purpose. It’s just the way it is. Getting through West Point with less leeway is hard. Crazy hard.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman at a service academy but I know with certainty, they didn’t have it easier than I did. I was a male athlete at Annapolis and I made it through on the goodwill of others that these women unquestionably had less of. If you think that’s not true, go ask any woman who ever graduated from a service academy. If you can find one.
In America, the racial inequality divide is staggering. We can debate the causes but when you’re black in America, the chance that you came from a poor family, a family with a single parent or an incarcerated parent or a low income neighborhood is so disturbingly slanted against you that graduating from a school like West Point is statistically so improbable, that it’s literally unbelievable. As in, if someone tells you they did it, you should be skeptical because it’s so rare.
Here’s a hard truth. These women would never say this. So I will. You didn’t do what they just did. And you probably couldn’t. So take a breath.
I have no idea what the intent of those women were. I’m not naive enough to believe that all of them were just fired up at graduation. Some probably were. Or maybe they were doing it to shout at the top of their lungs that that black lives do matter. And that they matter because this is what can be done with one.
One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned at Annapolis was learning the nuance of how not to conform amidst an overwhelming sea of conformity. And learning it meant that I got it wrong a lot more than I got it right. And like those West Point cadets, I took some lumps for it along the way. But it was worth it. There’s some heavy decorations and more than a half dozen war time deployments on those idiots in the luau shirts above. Much of it was empowered by one indomitable notion. Don’t tell me I can’t.
We were misfits and failures. And people told us in no uncertain terms we weren’t fit to lead. But that streak of defiance, the very one that drove us to places others wouldn’t go, is an important one. The trajectory of our species has pivoted on that fierce sentiment. It always has. It always will.
So, if you’re going to break that rule, and I want to be clear, it’s a good rule, that’s how you do it. Go be one of the 17 black women on the planet that graduated from West Point this year. And in a moment of pride and realization of all you’ve been through to get to that moment, raise your right fist. Because the world told you and your brothers and sisters that you couldn’t accomplish what you just did. And you said, don’t tell me I can’t. Because black lives do matter. Because they can be fierce lives. And fierce lives move us.
The separation of politics and the military will survive it. So for the vocally outraged I’ll say this. Patch up your angry wounds and move on. Everything is going to be all right.
And for those proud women, I’ll add one more thing. Welcome to the family ladies. Now get to work. There’s plenty of opportunity to put boot to ass for God and country right over the next ridge line. And I would have served with any one of you any day.