Last week I had the great pleasure of spending time with a young woman who attends the United States Naval Academy (USNA), Midshipman 3rd class Julia Zook.
She was back in my home town for a few weeks after completing her first year at USNA. Julia has a determined, enthusiastic demeanor and expresses herself with the earnestness of a natural leader. While happy to be home and delighted that the tough Plebe (first) year was over, she said she had relished the initial experience. Julia loved the camaraderie and friendships developed and being part of something bigger than herself. “Everyone helps each other because you cannot go through the place alone,” she said.
I have always been a bit curious about how the military creates such tight bonds. I have read Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s Absolutely American about West Point, yet military academies still have an aura of mystery about them. Even though my father, cousin and nephew were all in the Navy, my images are admittedly honed by Hollywood movies such as A Few Good Men, The Hunt for Red October and GI Jane. I imagine tight formations and obedience, but I know that the military really excels at the development of teamwork.
Julia explained that the Navy promotes cooperation and community. “Someone always has your back,” she said. “You rely on each other. You mentor and teach with tradition. During Plebe summer you are thrown into a company. You have no choice but to work together and get along. You form friendships through hardship and common experience. You need to rely on your teammates. If one person is last and by themselves, the team fails. Everyone helps each other.”
The espirit de corps created within the military is certainly essential for survival in combat situations. However the creation of close bonds is also the basis for lasting friendships. The USNA is an intense environment and the Navy has recognized that strong friendships are essential for mental and physical health as well as survival under pressure.
In addition, the Navy adds another layer of support with “sponsor families” for all Plebes. Families and students take a survey of interests and preferences and then are matched. The sponsor families meet with the students on their free day and provide home cooked meals, a place to hang out or help with errands–basically, a-home-away-from-home. Julia said that her sponsor family “parents,” Tami and David Burt, made a huge difference in her well-being during her first year. It appears that the Navy really understands that friendship is essential to the stated mission of the Academy:
“To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”
Or, as Muhammed Ali said, “If you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”
Carol Lewis Gullstad, August 22, 2011