30 years ago this weekend was Induction Day (a.k.a. I-Day) for the Naval Academy’s Class of 1986. On the day, I and over 1,400 other classmates raised our hands in Tecumseh Court at the heart of the Academy’s Annapolis campus (which we soon learned to call “The Yard”), and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.
In my half-century-ish on this planet, I’d only place my wedding date and the day my daughter was born as more important days than I-Day in shaping the course that my life has taken. It was that significant.
Practicing manual of arms in my room, wearing regulation P.E. gear, on the Fourth Floor of Sixth Wing, Bancroft Hall, July 1982.
I had just barely turned 17 when I took the oath, having skipped a grade in elementary school, and owning a late May birthday. I graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina in June 1982, then had just a few weeks of down-time before having to report to Annapolis right after the Fourth of July holiday for Plebe Summer, the Academy’s version of boot camp. My father, who had sworn the same oath I did many years before me, missed both my high school graduation and my I-Day, because he was well and faithfully serving his nation as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in and around Beirut, Lebanon, at the time. I missed him.
Because of the escalating hostilities in Lebanon circa 1982-1983, I spent most of my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy getting up early each morning and quickly checking the newspapers to make sure that my Dad was still alive. A lot of people he went over there with did not make it through the course of that year. It made a tough experience in Annapolis even more stressful, needless to say.
I did well the first set of Plebe Summer, because I had a huge jump on most of my classmates in terms of my knowledge of military arts and protocol, having spent most of my life on or near Marine Corps bases. By the second set of Plebe Summer, though, my innate difficulty with authority apparently kicked in, and my fitness reports quickly tumbled, putting me at the bottom, performance-wise, of Hotel Company’s 23rd Platoon.
When the full Brigade of Midshipmen returned that fall, 23rd Platoon became the Plebe Class of 23rd Company, and I quickly cemented my status as a “shit screen” for my cohort, meaning that I caught the trouble that otherwise might have flowed downstream and gotten stuck on other people. My academic performance was generally sound, sure, but my military performance left a lot to be desired. And this did not change much over the ensuing four years, as I spent huge swaths of time standing in restriction musters, or marching area tours, or serving room tours, or otherwise being punished for my chronic inability to comply with the rules that had been set before us.
A lot of my room-mates, friends and company mates left the Academy along the way, either deciding that it wasn’t worth being there anymore, or falling victim to academic boards, or performance boards, or honor boards. Somehow, though — amazingly enough — I scraped by, one day at a time. And then, one day before my 21st birthday (May 21, 1986), I officially became a Naval Academy alumnus, graduating alongside the approximately 70% of our I-Day cohort who made it all the way through. Go figure!
Midshipman Fourth Class John E. Smith, Annapolis, Fall of 1982.
As rotten of a midshipman as I was, though, I can state categorically that I would never have finished college in four years had I gone anywhere besides Annapolis. And as much as I fought authority there, I still managed to develop an incredible collection of life skills that serve me well, to this day, every day, in both my personal and professional lives, three decades later.
About 10 years after we graduated from the Academy, largely on a whim, I reached out to our then Class President and offered to help him develop a website and e-mail list for the class, since I had those skills from work, and I figured that if I used them on behalf of the class, it would make it easier for me to get and stay in touch with the folks I wanted to communicate with.
But somehow that selfish act on my part actually blossomed into something legitimately charitable and powerful for me, especially after we lost two I-Day classmates on September 11, 2001, right before what should have been a joyful 15th reunion, in which I played a major planning role. I went on to serve as the Class of ’86’s Secretary, then President for five years, and now Treasurer, devoting and donating thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours over the years to helping maintain the relationships that were first forged between us on I-Day, 30 years ago this weekend.
I remain humbled by that experience of service to the class of ’86, giving back in a very modest way as a belated way of thanking my friends and peers for the role they played in making me the man that I am today. I certainly remain a flawed and erratic human being, but I know that many of the best facets of my personality and professional ability stem directly from my days in Annapolis, and I am deeply grateful for what the Naval Academy did for me — and to me — between July of 1982 and May of 1986.
As I write this, a thousand or so terrified young people are going through the same process I went through 30 years ago. On one hand, my heart bleeds for them and their families, because it is hard . . . it really is so, so, so very hard, in ways that words can’t do justice. But, on the other hand, I laud and celebrate those brave young people, because I know that they are at the opening phases of an extraordinary life experience, one that only a relatively small number of living human beings have shared. They will be better men and women for their efforts, and our Nation will benefit from their service and their commitment to causes greater than their own well being.
My thoughts and best wishes go out especially profoundly to those in the class of 2016 who swear their oath this summer while their own mothers and fathers are in harm’s way in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. I know what that feels like . . . though I can’t imagine how much harder that must have felt for my Dad, who wasn’t there on such significant days for me, as much as he would have wanted to be a part of them. That’s the terrifying part of the oath of office: you don’t get to decide when you will be called to fulfill it.
It awes me to be a small link in such an important chain, truly.