The following is the first part of a four-part series. The author wishes to express that this article in no way reflects the feelings and thoughts of her brother. It is written from a family member’s perspective and is meant to be understood in that way.
I know why I chose Columbia: the campus is magnificent, the education is top-tier, and my peers are intelligent. I could look at a stranger, tell him or her that I went to Columbia, and hear the predictable, “Wow, you must be smart.”
When my brother was getting ready to go to the Naval Academy, everyone ooohed and awed about how brave he was. Aunts and uncles would say, “John, you must be one of thousands of kids who wanted to go—you must be so smart!” When he appeared unsure about whether he wanted to choose Navy or University of California, Berkeley, one uncle who works on Wall Street said, “John, businessmen love hiring people from the academies. You will be set for life.” With that kind of promised prestige, my brother found it tough to give up a spot at Navy. So in June, my family dropped him off in Annapolis.
Before he left, my family had countless talks about what it might mean to be at an academy. While we knew that someday he would be required to serve, we also were drawn to the top-tier education he was promised to receive. We were told that the Naval Academy was first and foremost an elite college. He would be able to learn history, economics, political science, and even engineering. He would play lacrosse on a nationally ranked team and play the bugle in the marching band. He would have seminars about leadership and selflessness. He would even go to school for free.
When I talked to my brother about why he wanted to go, he admitted that it was because he was drawn to the structure of the place—as a kid who did not want to sit around and drink beer during college, he liked the fact that he would be busy and have a purpose. I soon became comfortable with the idea of the academy, as if it would be a haven for my brother’s undergraduate career. And when people would congratulate me on my brother’s decision, it made me feel reassured.
Soon that pride turned to anger and fear: after my mom dropped him off at Annapolis, she came home with an acute sense of grief. The only thing she could talk about was how to get him out. In addition to missing his presence at home, she was scared by the extent to which her son had suddenly become the property of the U.S. Navy.
She begged me to call a naval lieutenant Monday morning to start the out-processing forms for my brother. After leaving countless messages for the lieutenant, he finally called me back, at which point he informed me that my brother would have to go through 13 exit-interviews to be dismissed, including an interview with the head of the Navy. When I asked him whether this might intimidate him out of leaving, the lieutenant reminded me that my brother had signed an oath legally binding him to the Navy. When I reminded the lieutenant that he had signed that oath after he had been yelled at all day and that his hair had just been shaven off during his first day there, he comforted me that John was not at all forced to sign the oath.
When I looked at the course catalogue, which boasted seminars about leadership and selflessness, they were in fact seminars about weaponry and leading troops into combat. The reality of sending my brother to the Naval Academy began to set in: this was not a school; this was the military. While they boast a first class education, the main goal of this institution was to get my brother “combat ready.” During the first two “induction days,” the head of the Navy openly admitted that their goal was to transform these boys into men who would willingly die defending our country. They said to my parents, “We will manage to do in 18 minutes what you could not do in 18 years—we will discipline your boys and have them calling you Sir and Ma’am.” When they talked of courage and bravery, they showed a video of a Navy marine rounding off an unlimited supply of ammunition. During my brother’s plebe summer (his first summer), he could not talk to us for more than a few minutes once a week for fear that we might unduly influence him.
My brother ended up liking Annapolis and he has decided to stay. While it has been difficult for me to accept that I have a brother in the military, I must allow him to pursue whatever path he is drawn toward, and he has admitted to me that he feels called to being there. However, for anyone else out there considering a career in the academy, let it be known: the U.S. Naval Academy is not an elite college; it is first and foremost a branch of the U.S. military and the prestige comes at a big price—it taxes parents, siblings, and participants if they do not understand what they were signing up for.
The author a Barnard College senior majoring in political science.