Fowler says Naval Academy will adapt if 'don't ask, don't tell' policy ends

'Basic respect' among students is key to success

May 16, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

The departing superintendent of the Naval Academy says that if the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars gays from serving openly in the military ends, the academy will adjust, as it has changed over the years with the admission of minorities and women.

The Obama administration is seeking to repeal the 1993 policy that prevents gay people from serving in the military unless they shield their sexual orientation.

Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler said that if the ban is repealed, the academy will continue to apply its concept of "basic respect" among midshipmen. He said the students' ability to work with others has always been crucial to their success.

"We have always been a diverse group," he said, noting that students come from a variety of backgrounds and must respect, trust and rely on each other to succeed in the academy's "high-stress environment." That, he said, has been a constant at the academy.

"You cannot get through here without your classmates, and that will continue forever," Fowler said.

Also, during his traditional year-end news conference at the school in Annapolis, Fowler said that the Herndon climb, which marks the end of plebe year, has an uncertain future because of safety issues. Some midshipmen have been hurt, though none seriously, as they tumble and trample over each other climbing the 21-foot-tall, lard-coated obelisk. Fowler believes the 14-hour Sea Trials may replace the climb. Both events will take place as planned at the end of May.

While discussing the academy's diversity, Fowler recalled coming to the Naval Academy as a member of the Class of 1978 from Bismarck, N.D., and finding himself rooming with students from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, young men who were different from him.

He said "basic respect" was needed when he was a student, "and that's really what we teach our midshipmen."

Women began attending the academy in 1976. The academy graduated its first black midshipman in 1949. The military has had a checkered past in dealing with both minority groups.

Fowler noted that 11 female midshipmen graduating this month were selected to be among the first women to serve as submarine officers. Women have served on Navy combat ships since 1994.

"I'm an enthusiastic supporter of women in submarines. I've seen the talent of women," he said, adding that he had no doubts about the women's abilities to succeed in submarine duties and acknowledging that during the transition, "we'll learn a few things."

"Anything the submarine force makes up its mind to do, they do very well," said Fowler, who commanded a submarine squadron and served as a submarine tactics instructor.

He pointed out that minority applications have drastically increased, reaching an all-time high for the class that will arrive for induction July 1. Of the record-breaking number of 17,417 applicants for the Class of 2014, 5,379 were minorities.

This spring, the academy also slightly revised its approach to dealing with plebes who commit honor code violations, such as lying. Administrative changes have removed midshipmen from the pool of people working with freshmen violators to punish their behavior and counsel them in what is known as remediation. That job will rest exclusively with more senior officers and faculty.

When he came to the academy in 2007, Fowler said, the idea was to "expose as many Mids as possible" to the honor concept in "as many different ways as possible."

That included assigning seniors, called first-class mids, as remediators. But, Fowler said, "almost every one of those remediations failed." In contrast, remediations handled by faculty and administrators were more successful, he said. He attributed the difference to the students' lack of extensive real-world and demanding sea experiences to draw upon that the more senior people have.

In March, the third midshipman in a little more than a year was imprisoned for thefts from either fellow mids or the academy. Fowler said while that was of concern, it is a small number.

"We hold people accountable," Fowler said.

Fowler's three-year tenure at the academy is expected to end this summer. Rear Adm. Michael H. Miller has been nominated for the superintendent's post; the position is subject to Senate confirmation.

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