Saturday, November 10, 2012

Inside the Academy

Kathleen Jabs, Guest Blogger

My first contact with the Naval Academy was the catalogue. I was seventeen, a high school junior, trying to figure out what to do when a classmate passed me the book. The picture on the cover hooked me – midshipmen dressed in crisp blue and gold, stretched over the gunnel of a sailboat, holding the lines taut as they battled wind and waves. I devoured each glossy page – I was entranced by the science, the sense of opportunity, the chance to be around the ocean and crisscross the world. I had no real idea what the military was. I was seeking adventure, a change of scene. I judged the book (and the school) by the cover.

My dad went to Officer Candidate School after college and served in the Navy for four years in the mid-sixties. Our family’s naval history began with stories about how he had spelled naval wrong (navel) and had to march demerits while my mother waited for him outside the gates at Newport. He also spoke about packing a box of books with him when his ship deployed to the Caribbean and reading in his stateroom when he wasn’t on watch. It sounded exotic, a bit romantic. It aligned with my ideas: I wanted to be different and somehow bold.

Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to do. One minute I imagined a career in politics. The next I wanted to be a leader, to be of service. Some days, I dreamed of being a spy. I knew, no matter what I did, I wanted to travel and live abroad. The Naval Academy seemed like a perfect launch pad. I would trade short term freedom for long-term independence. I found a quote in the catalogue that said, “the Naval Academy is a great place to be from, not at.” I decided I could live with that.

I reported to Annapolis in July 1984, a member of the eighth class with women. It was only my second time south of New York. It never occurred to me that I would not be welcomed. The hostility from my squad leader was a shock, but I was so busy trying to survive that I didn’t feel singled out by gender, only by performance.

My lack of familiarity with the military showed in every aspect. I didn’t know how to wear or assemble uniforms. I wasn’t in good enough shape. I was unprepared for all the seriousness. I laughed when my squad leader pulled out my desk drawer and ran his fingers around the inner hinges, producing a pile of dust. Who knew the drawers came all the way out? Or the mirror came off the wall? I bit back my laughter until the demerits started to add up. The first afternoon I hoisted a rifle on my shoulder and started marching in a square on the deck outside, I felt the first twinge of despair. What had I signed up for? Why couldn’t I measure up?

I vowed to improve. I studied my military lessons and memorized the insignia and ranks. I worked on the room. I fixed my uniforms. Slowly, over the course of the summer, I got in shape. I woke up each morning with strands of hair curling on my pillow. I was too exhausted not too sleep, but my nights were restless. I was committed to endurance, to proving myself worthy. We were surrounded by stories of heroism and tales of unbelievable bravery and courage. Admiral Stockdale in the prisons of Vietnam, Colonel Ripley on the bridge in Vietnam, Admiral Farragut in Mobile Bay, John Paul Jones shouting the storied cry, “I have not yet begun to fight.”  I didn’t imagine I would be in a sea battle or even a war, but I wanted to be ready for what tests might come.

It didn’t occur to me that we studied no women heroes. I didn’t expect it. The only women I knew back home who worked were teachers or nurses. Most of my friends’ mothers were full-time homemakers. When I left for the Academy, I was conscious that I was following a new path, one not quite tested. The first women entered the Naval Academy in 1976 and graduated in 1980. What a debt all of female USNA graduates since then owe those first women. Recently, I’ve the chance to meet some of the first class women and I’ve been inspired by their ongoing efforts to mentor the next generation.

In Black Wings, I wanted to capture that time of firsts – the early years of female integration into combat domains and the larger military structure. It was critical that the time period be late 1980’s, early 1990’s. At that point, women had been serving in the military but were still excluded from most combat platforms. When those restrictions were lifted, it ushered in a new era. Audrey Richards, one of the main characters in Black Wings, longs to fly fighter aircraft and land on a carrier. When she gets her wish, she faces incredible hostility, both at the Naval Academy and in the fleet on account of her gender. Times have since changed. For the better.

The Navy I serve in now is so different than the one I entered. The opportunities for women have exploded. Women now serve on submarines, regularly fly combat aircraft and are present on all ships in all rates. Rarely am I ever the only woman in a room. With all those changes have come new challenges – trying to balance family, children and a military career is daunting, especially with today’s deployment cycles.

I’m in constant awe and admiration of the sacrifices and determination our men and women in uniform make. The lengths of deployment have steadily increased and the operational tempo is at an all-time high. Ships departing for a six-month deployment understand they may not be home for eight, nine, even ten months. When the ships are in port, they’re ready to surge – this week there are three ships off the coast of New York assisting in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. It’s all part of the Navy’s mission to be ready and operate forward. The sacrifices our sailors make on a daily basis are incredible.

I’m proud to serve in the Navy and to be a Naval Academy graduate. I’m aware of the wealth of opportunities I’ve been afforded and I can look back with compassion, perspective, and even laughter on the early trials. It’s one of the reasons I keep the old Navy Academy catalogue on my shelf. The book lived up to the cover.

Black Wings is available at Fuze Publishing and also at Amazon in trade paperback and e-book formats. Click here for a video trailer for Black Wings.

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Poe's Daughters salutes Kathleen and all current and former serving military personnel on this Remembrance Day/Veterans Day weekend.

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