The Writing on the Wall

by Jeannette Gaudry Haynie ‘98

I’d like to tell you a story. It’s the story of choices, expectations, and of the construction of the world around us. It’s the story of how we see the paths we take and the forces that shape our decisions. It’s also a story of promise and of the strengths of different perspectives. It’s my story, and I hope it resonates.

I’m a member of the great class of ’98 from Annapolis, and I was commissioned as a Marine, later becoming a Cobra pilot. Like many of us, I wanted to be challenged, to lead, and to prove myself – all in a meaningful way. The Marines seemed to be the perfect fit, and flying Cobras was my passion.

But about a decade into my career, I left active duty and the career that I loved after struggling (and spectacularly failing) to raise my daughter alone for most of the first three years of her life. My husband, also a Marine, was deployed for most of those years, and my family – at the time still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and 2,000 miles away – couldn’t help out much. I didn’t want to leave active duty. And I didn’t do it without a drawn-out fight inside my heart and head. But I remember well the day that I realized with total certainty, driving onto base with a crying toddler in the backseat and tears of exhaustion running down my face, that I was either going to crash the aircraft with a student in the front seat or crash the car with my daughter in the back. There was no one to talk to, to model, to vent to or bounce ideas off of. No one to listen or advise. So, I gave up and dropped my papers. I stayed on (barely) in the Reserves, mostly out of fear of surrendering my identity in full, but I considered myself a total failure. I was hurt, angry, and exhausted for a long time after that.

And after an encounter with a more senior officer on the day I quit, I also felt really stupid.

The day that I resigned my commission, I ran into my former commanding officer. Upset, I told him that I was getting out and couldn’t hack it. He gave me a half-smile. “You know, Jeannette, as soon as you had a baby, the writing was on the wall,” he said. “It was just a matter of time. I saw that coming. You’re a mother now, and that’s your job.”

His comments, instead of comforting me as they were likely meant to do, shook me to my core. They made me feel stupid and angry at the waste – the waste of my time and energy and of what the Marine Corps had invested in me. The waste of my years of work and deployments. The waste of the days that my daughter had been raised by others or had ended up in crappy day cares because I’d been desperate for coverage. Why had I bothered pushing so hard, compromising her safety, wringing myself dry only to still fail in the end… if it was all pre-ordained anyway? Was this a narrative that I had somehow missed or ignored in my ambition? His comments – like so many others I have heard before and since – stripped me of my identity and choices and rendered me powerless. I was no longer worth investing in. But why?

I thought I’d done the right things: I’d deployed and earned leadership and instructor qualifications. I was a night instructor, flying with boot pilots on NVGs until my sixth month of pregnancy. I had child care lined up to deploy since my deployment would overlap with my husband’s, had my daughter in and out of child care homes of all varieties (and qualities), and had barely lived with my husband for the past ten years. I thought I had made the needed sacrifices and the right choices. And none of it had mattered, because I was a mother – and that was all that the Corps was willing to let me be. I began to believe that he was right, that the writing was on the wall, and that I had been stupid and naïve for trying.

The Marine Corps as an institution agreed with him. Child care hours didn’t line up with working hours, and availability and quality were hit-or-miss – so as I rushed out to pick up my daughter before the on-base facility closed or before the off-base home charged me extra, the institution saw me as a burden. A senior officer commented that it must be nice to “prance out early every day” as I ran out to pick up my infant daughter, and my next fitrep reflected that perspective. No other pilots were solo-parenting – so when OPS repeatedly changed the rough schedule at the 11th hour to add me onto consecutive late night flights, they didn’t consider the child care scramble I repeatedly made. And not one Marine in my chain of command checked on my mental health during those three years, even knowing that my husband was in Iraq or afloat for most of that time. The institution wrote me off just as my former CO had – and I got that message, loud and clear.

But I reflected on his words over the coming years, and I started graduate school and writing in an effort to understand my experiences as a Marine, a woman, a veteran, and, yes, a mother – all within in the context of war. Over the next decade, I earned my Master’s and my PhD studying conflict and how gender and culture shape our decision-making processes and – importantly – outcomes. And I began to see my CO’s words differently. I started to see them as transparent, as a framework or a structure that I could push on. And I started to see how big the effects of that structure were. It wasn’t just me or Marines in similar situations who were losing out. The Corps was losing, too. So was America. So were we all. And those losses had effects.

Through my research, I began questioning and studying the construction of institutions, structures, and the norms that shape them and us in new ways. I examined how policy and culture affected outcomes, and observed their very real impacts. And in pushing back, I began to see an infinitely malleable and imperfect world, one that I have always been able to shape but hadn’t truly realized that power. I discovered that the adults in the room are no better or wiser than any of us – and that sometimes all it takes is a voice speaking up. I will retire from the Marine Corps this fall, after ten years’ active duty and ten years as a Reservist… and one final year on active duty, that I have spent trying to build a case within the Corps for a more strategic vision for talent management for warfighting effectiveness and decision-making. My career has come full circle in a very meaningful way. What, again, was written on that wall?

Last fall, I sat across from a younger woman, telling this story to illustrate how inflexibility and a lack of creativity hurts us all – and she added the exclamation point. As I recounted my former CO’s quote about the writing on the wall, she slapped the table between us. With her younger eyes, she saw right through it. “If it was written on the wall, it was because he wrote it there, that [expletive]!” she exclaimed. And she was right. He wasn’t an [expletive], but he had certainly written it on that wall for me. And the Corps had nodded benevolently alongside.

Well, about that wall…it’s turned out not to be a wall at all – at least not a solid one. And the only thing it says is what we want it to. It doesn’t define us. It doesn’t create our choices. Many may try to make it hold us back – but as women, and particularly as leaders, we must remain committed to questioning, to pushing back, and at times to rejecting these frameworks that we might not even see. And that knowledge demands an entirely new perspective – one of leadership and openness.

I’ve thought many times about how amazing it would have been if someone on the other side of that wall had reached a hand through and told me what was possible. It didn’t happen for me at the time. But it can and it should happen for us all – the lessons I have learned are common to so many of us on this path. I want my story to add to the foundation that we all climb from. I want those who follow to be better, wiser, and braver than I am. I want us all to push back.

Being part of the Sisterhood of Mother B has shown me not only that we can be the women we needed as plebes, but that we can also be the women we need now, for each other and for those who came before. It isn’t too late – in fact, it’s perfectly timed. Our voices carry weight. What we say and what we do matter, and people will listen. The framework isn’t what we thought it would be – it’s so much less and we have so much more agency than we think we do. We can write on our own walls. Those rules and expectations that come from those around us are transparent and malleable… and we can choose our own words.

Sisterhood in Action

by Shannon Martin McClain ‘98

The Sisterhood of Mother B and the USNA Women’s Shared Interest Group (SIG) have already had a busy summer, and it’s only July – actually, how is it already July? – During June, the SIG provided scholarships to three young women for summer programs at the Naval Academy which included the cost of the program as well as an introduction to a local member of the Women’s SIG who will act as a mentor throughout the upcoming year and perhaps beyond.  We will have more on that story in the following weeks as we hear back about these young ladies’ experiences on the yard.  Our other big event in June was the USNA I-Day EXPO and Parents Picnic.

On 27 June 2019, the Class of 2023, including 300 women, checked in for their Plebe Summer. While the newest members of the Brigade were finishing medical screenings, receiving haircuts, and gathering their newly issued gear, their family members and friends joined the fray on Hospital Point at the USNA EXPO Tent and Parents Picnic. Among the local businesses and other organizations, members of the Naval Academy Women’s Shared Interest Group (SIG) were there to greet them. It was an opportunity to welcome everyone to the Naval Academy Family. Nancy Vegel ’83 shared some of her thoughts from the day in her after action report, and I wanted to pass the information on to the Sisterhood.

The EXPO provided an opportunity for organizations and local businesses to introduce our newest families to the local area and the various support networks available to Midshipmen and families during the next four years and beyond. Nancy Vegel ’83, Maira Gailbraith ’90, Nikki Battaglia ’96 and Michele Phillips ’98 took time from their schedules to staff the Women’s SIG table and introduce the Women’s SIG. From all accounts, the Women’s SIG table was a hit.  The Women’s SIG handed out more than 250 information cards and shared their stories with the parents of both the daughters and sons of ’23. Current members of the Sisterhood, there for various reasons, came by the table to say hello and admire the display. Vice Admiral Tim Carter, the Naval Academy Superintendent and his wife Linda also stopped by to show their support.

Sharon Disher ’80 provided memorabilia for the table including photographs, old-style women’s covers, a t-shirt from Herndon, and her book, First Class.  The postcards and Women’s SIG tablecloth and runner were made possible in part through t-shirt sales with the Sisterhood of Mother B. The handmade embroidered “USNAAA WOMEN’S SIG” bags were also a huge draw.  While sales are not allowed during the EXPO, several people expressed an interest in how to get one of those bags, something that we should add to the list of possible fundraising Sisterhood Swag. In addition to the beautiful, and highly sought after bags, the Sisterhood’s ideas for this year’s fundraising efforts include SOMB decals, new shirt designs, and perhaps a baseball cap.

 

The USNAAA Women’s SIG plans to continue their outreach with future candidates and involvement in the alumna community.  If you are looking for ways to get involved, reach out to your Area Coordinators to support your local Women’s SIG and participate with your local Alumni Association Chapter.  Stay tuned at Sisterhood of Mother B for opportunities to get some sweet swag and help support the SIG. We are also exploring opportunities to honor the Women Graduates of the Naval Academy in association with some of the upcoming building projects on and around the Yard.  Stay tuned!!!

 

 

No Body is Perfect

by CAPT Jillene Bushnell, ‘98

I arrived at USNA as a 21-year-old transplant.  I paid for polytechnic college in California on my own, but when Congress changed the law allowing women to fly in combat, I jumped at the chance to transfer.  I wanted to be part of an institution that did not have a glass ceiling, but I found that I was, and still am, part of the group that is breaking ground.  I am grateful to the women who paved the way.  All the women who came after them learned from watching their “elders.”  Many women kept their heads down while they proved their worth in the male-dominated environment.  Many women struggled with being simultaneously tough and feminine.  I was one of those women, emulating what I saw before me.

During my first year at the academy, I wished that I had a family that thought being a varsity athlete was worth something.  It seemed the workouts, meals and study regimens were set for those that were part of a sport.  Those of us not part of a team were left to our own devices – the intramural warriors. Plebe year, those “devices” included full fat meals, minimal fruits and vegetables, and the cannonball run celebrating the ability to gorge and run for redemption.  I gained so much weight that year that I requested special permission to get up prior to reveille to run an inner or an outer loop just to keep the weight off.

King Hall based meal and nutrition planning on an 18-year-old, male diet.  Many of those young men were still growing up, before they grew out.  There were a few nutritionists on staff for the Brigade, but visiting them gave you a special request chit to receive non-fat milk and little else.  An average plebe was lucky to be allowed the ability to eat, let alone eat nutritious proportions and ingredients.

Youngster year I taught aerobics, as I had done prior to joining the Navy.  I served the category five students, those who did not pass their PFA (BCA or PRT). Like present-day FEP, we mustered five days a week to PT prior to reveille.  What I could not get through to the program managers, though, is that all of these students were athletes.  They PT’ed the crap out of my Marine Corps Company Officer who joined us one morning to see for himself.  They were fit and religious in their workout, but they needed better nutrition.  You can’t out run (PT) your fork.

Since women matured faster than men, there was a propensity for women to be a larger population percentage than men in my category five class.  The “unusually big asses” mentioned in Jeannette Gaudry Haynie’s WUBA article were not a product of fitness, care or desire.  Midshipmen lacked nutrition education and healthy food choices in King Hall. After Plebe year, women tended to receive scrutiny about their weight because 1) they were not PT’ing in the hallways as they chopped from room to room and 2) their uniforms, fit to an 18-year-old woman after the most exhausting summer she has yet experienced, were now too small to let out the seams. Layer on to this equation 3) the tucked-in uniform style, synched by a belt, with poorly designed pant pockets.  Very few women could look their best whether in winter working blues or, maybe especially, in summer whites.

Stress, academics and first-time-away-from-home parties and tailgaters drove some students to over-imbibe both food and drink.   Add to this mix the opposite sex, and in comes the titles that women chose for each other behind their backs… “queen of the boat,” the “beloved,” and every other jealous term that a woman can throw another woman’s way.  I must say, sometimes the desire to be loved, coveted, and part of a twosome causes ladies to be very unladylike.  We women are competitors.  Warriors when it comes to love, right?  I’ve heard people talk about the MRS degree as if it were a reason to join the Academy.  Why else would we join (wink)?

Enter the eating disorder.  How do you lose weight in an atmosphere like this?  Binge and purge?  Spend your own money on local area restaurant food?  Stop eating?  Purchase supplements or weight loss programs?  Midshipmen tried all of these —some to the detriment of our physical and mental health.  It was rarely so conspicuous that anyone was called out for it.  The greatest form of body dysphoria came during this period of our lives.  Look back at pictures of yourself.  Twenty years later, do you look back at your younger self and still think you were fat?  Most likely not.  Was your body powerful, educated and ready to take on the world regardless of its shape?  Most likely.

Remember this when you mentor the kids going through today.  Men and women.  Yes, marketing to the men has pulled them into the heresy of thinking poorly of their body, too – supplements, protein powders and muscle gaining compounds are a very lucrative business. I urge you to have conversations with our children, our Sailors and our friends that include health, both mental and physical.  The internal struggle, to remain thin and young-looking, eventually catches up to all of us.

Although we learned ethical leadership at the Academy, we struggle with respectful words for our all-powerful, differing body-types.  Fitness and “fatness” are not perfectly correlated, and no matter our age, we need better quality and consumption habits of nutrition.  No one should be driven to lose weight in an unhealthy way  to look the part of a tough, fit, warrior.  In the words of Christina Aguilera, “You are beautiful, no matter what they say…don’t you bring me down today.”

 

Coming Around

By Shannon Martin McClain ’98

It was the fall of 1995.  I was in the Midstore surrounded by a group of men quizzing me on pro knowledge. I was peppered with questions about everything from accommodations for women to the existence of cannonballs in King Hall. I was a Youngster, but this was definitely a come-around.

I am a child of the Academy. My dad graduated in 1970 and served in the surface Navy for six years before returning to his hometown with my mom – a Philadelphia girl whom he met at a party after Army/Navy. According to my mom, when USNA opened to women in 1976, dad announced the downfall of his Alma Mater. Mom replied, “It will probably be your daughter who wants to attend the Academy.” He grumbled, “You’re probably right.”  And she was.

I spent my childhood listening to sea stories. When dad’s roommates moved cross country, they often stopped for the night and shared their stories. On vacations, we visited old roommates, company mates, and shipmates. I read Proceedings and Shipmate and sent letters to my Congressmen advocating the repeal of the Combat Exclusion Act. When dad finally accepted that I was serious about the Academy, and that there was very little he could do to stop me, he called a company mate cum USNA professor to give me a tour of the Yard. He did not want me to go, but he supported me. By I-Day, he and my mom – who always supported me – were my strongest advocates.

Back at the Midstore, it was the weekend of his 25th reunion, and his company mates wanted to see if I was officer material – and tell sea stories. Some I had never met. Others hadn’t seen me since I was a child. I was nervous, but confident as I answered their questions. Once they were satisfied, they told me to carry on.  Their wives, standing in the background with mom, applauded.

These men, who began their service during the Vietnam War, probably did not start out thinking women should attend the Academy, but they came around. My dad and his friends accepted me at the Academy and mentored me throughout my career. Their wives joined my mom in providing an excellent perspective on how Navy life affects families. The professor became my sponsor dad. When I retired last summer, members of the Class of ’70 were there to celebrate and to encourage my next chapter.

Through their mentorship, I learned what the camaraderie of midshipmen and graduates is supposed to be, and I recognize that not everyone feels so fully embraced.  So, I joined with six classmates to form the Sisterhood of Mother B.  Working with the USNAAA Women’s Shared Interest Group, we provide a platform for the Naval Academy Alumnae to tell their stories through articles and podcasts. In the spirit of the mentorship I received from my father and his classmates, we hope to support our future leaders by sharing our diverse perspectives.

Third Culture Mid

by Michele (Cruz) Phillips, ’98

I’ll never fit in. That’s one of my best qualities.” – Terri Willingham

I’m a Third Culture Kid (TCK).  For those who don’t know the term, a TCK is someone whose childhood years were affected by multiple cultures. Most of the time the term is used for kids who are expats and spent much of their childhood moving from one country to another.  But I didn’t. In fact, my parents still live in the same house I grew up in.

I’m on the far right, and apparently a big Tigger fan

My dad boarding the plane to America, 1970

I’m a TCK because I’m a first-generation immigrant.  My parents came from the Philippines in 1970 and I’m the only natural born citizen in my family. So we had our American life on the outside, our Filipino life in the inside, and I operated somewhere in between. We lived in a predominantly white neighborhood; in elementary school, kids asked me if I was Chinese, Japanese, or Black. Older kids would yell “Chink” when I walked through the school hallway.  No one knew what Filipino was, or at least that’s how I remember it. Maybe that’s just because these are the memories that stick with me.

My sister Anna and I in 80’s fashion

I remember bringing a tin of Barquillos to a school Christmas party only to have it left untouched, so the next party I begged my mom to make peanut butter on celery sticks instead.  I remember feeling uncomfortable having to call my sister “Ate” or my brother “Kuya” out in public because I didn’t want to have to explain it was “Tagalog”. I can remember the waiter’s face when he couldn’t understand my parents’ orders because of their accent. I can still feel the embarrassment, the guilt of feeling embarrassed, and the anger of wanting to punch the waiter in the face.  I remember feeling conscious when my parents made a big (loud) deal of seeing another Filipino family in the grocery store and everyone found out they grew up near each other. Even our doctor was Filipino. For goodness sake, I thought back then. Can’t we just. Blend. IN?

The life of a TCK can be complicated.  It can be lonely since you never feel like you quite fit in.  You want to connect with the people from one side of your life, but are not sure how that will impact the other side.  You worry somehow you will be alienated. You’re not on either side. You learn to live on the outside of your two worlds, moving in and out and knowing how to blend in just enough.  Sound familiar? Yes, it’s not unlike being a female midshipman (in the 90’s at least).

Plebe year in the Chapel

The traits of a TCK served me well in some ways while at the academy.  TCK’s can easily adapt. They make acquaintances easily. They are skilled at flying under the radar so nobody will notice them.  The downfall is deep connections are harder, and that, in particular, was vital to my well being at USNA. It’s not that there weren’t opportunities to connect.  I vaguely remember networking opportunities for female mids only (Sharon Disher ‘80 spoke at one). I think there was an Asian American Club and a Filipino American Club.  But my memory is faint because I never took full advantage of these potential support networks. Some small part of me felt like participating in these minority groups meant I needed them, and if I needed them, then it meant I wasn’t good enough to do this on my own.  Perhaps it was the little girl in me (the one that wanted to punch that waiter in the face) trying to say I can do this and I belong.

Here with my sponsor brothers and sister (there were more!)

I was adopted by a Filipino sponsor family that took me in along with other Filipino midshipmen.  Ironically, I had spent my whole childhood feeling out of place, and yet among other Filipino mids I felt too white! It was my own insecurities keeping me from making better connections, but I will be forever grateful for their generosity. However I look back on that time with a twinge of regret.  Regret that I did not build on the support network that was laid out for me. Regret that I felt so much like I had to blend in, that I let go of some parts of who I really was.

Here with my sponsor mom and sisters

I’m not alone. Since the creation of Sisterhood of Mother B, other women have written emails or comments echoing these same feelings of wishing they had done better. We can’t change the past but we can certainly influence our future. And let me tell you, as a “double” minority, hiding our differences and huddling in smaller groups is not the way ahead.  My parents had it right all along: be proud of what makes you different. Share those bizarre traditions because everyone’s got them, trust me. Seek out others like you and support them – loudly. Advocate for one another. Look for others who are earlier on their path and lend a hand. Help them make better choices and give them the advice you wish you had known all along. Be open about struggles you are having, because others are going through the same thing. But lastly, and probably most importantly, if you are reading this and you are still at the point in your path where you aren’t ready or sure how to reach out – it’s ok. I see you. I’ve been there, too. It took me some time, and when you’re ready you’ll know. We are here waiting.

Midshipmen past and present ‘80-‘21 at the Officer Women’s Leadership Symposium, April 2019