From left, Midshipman 3rd class Jimmy Grant, Midshipman 1st… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
The first thing they do to new male students at the Naval Academy is shave their heads. So it is a bit of a shock to see the guys sporting ... mustaches.
But the button-downed Brigade of Midshipmen has received permission from the top of the chain of command to grow whatever lip fuzz they can muster during November — which for the last decade has been known as "Movember," an effort to raise awareness and research funds for men's health.
It is Midshipman Mustache Month at an institution that forbids facial hair on students, but for the first time in its history is allowing it because of the persistence of a Mid who spent months petitioning his superiors.
"We did something like this at my high school," said sophomore Bray Wilcock of Darien, Conn., who wrote the proposal and defended it before the "13 people who matter," from his squad leader to the commandant of midshipmen, all the way to the superintendent.
"It is all about raising awareness in the brigade that we have to take our health seriously," he said.
The Movember campaign, begun in Australia in 2003, focuses on prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men's mental health, but senior Ben Herbold of Jacksonville, N.C., who has a pretty decent mustache going, said he was guilty of ignoring his own well-being in other ways.
"We ignore pain and signs of problems," he said. "I had a cold, I thought I would tough through it, and it turned out I had pneumonia. I thought I had a pulled muscle, and it turned out it was a hernia. It just kept getting worse until I had to have surgery."
Men have the reputation of being notoriously poor stewards of their own health, reluctant to visit doctors, undergo screenings, seek counseling or take medications. Like the pink-ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness, Movember is supposed to help change that.
Celebrities such as the "Today" show's Matt Lauer and weatherman Al Roker had prostate exams — behind a curtain — on live television and are growing facial hair to draw attention to the cause.
"My guy friends are visually reminded every day," said senior Kellie Hall of Stafford, Va., the brigade's public affairs officer. "And the females are more aware, too."
The mustaches on the Yard at the Naval Academy must meet strict Navy regulations, of course. No more than a quarter-inch away from the corner of the mouth, no touching the top of the lip, and it can not grow down the side of the mouth. That's a lot of measuring for guys who are already hustling from dawn to midnight — to class, to formations, to military duties, to sports practices, to study.
"My friends said, 'You're never going to be able to do this again [in a military career], so enjoy it,'" said Herbold.
To support the awareness campaign, the brigade of 4,500 listens to a men's health fact or a personal story each day in King Hall during lunch.
"You'd be surprised how many people have been affected by prostate cancer," said Hall.
The facts the brigade hears include "prostate cancer has no symptoms. The only way to detect it is to do prostate cancer screenings." And "testicular cancer is the most common form of cancer for men ages 20 to 35." And "tomatoes, broccoli, soy and flax all have ingredients that help prevent many cancers, including prostate cancer."
Wilcock has been affected by cancer, too. His uncle, who was from Baltimore and attended Boys' Latin, died of skin cancer that was detected too late.
"The awareness piece was what I learned from my uncle," he said. "My goal was to try to make this month a fun way to raise awareness about a serious issue."
Not everyone on the Yard is having success growing a mustache. That was particularly evident during last weekend's march-on before Navy's football game against South Alabama. A sea of young men entered the stadium, but you would have had no trouble counting those with visible lip hair.
"It comes up a lot," said Hall. "You have no idea. You ask somebody why they aren't supporting the campaign and they tell you, 'I'm trying!' "
Midshipman Adam Vetere, a junior and the brigade's videographer, chose not to grow one.
"It is uncomfortable," he said. "I am trying to support the campaign in other ways." He has been recording the stories of students touched by prostate cancer — as well as marking the progress of their mustaches.
Nothing is ever simple at the Naval Academy, so of course there are "midshipmen mustache" commanders, who check that the regulations are met. Each of the 30 companies in the brigade will choose its best-mustachioed member, and an overall mustache champion will be chosen at the end of the month.
And, as it should be perhaps, the midshipmen aspire to grow a mustache as fine as the distinctive sandy-hued one owned by the superintendent, Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller.
"His is the ideal," Herbold said.
"In an institution that is primarily male, this is an important issue," said Hall. "And it is something that has never been allowed here before."
Wilcock, the campaign's originator, is gratified by the response. But when asked why he isn't participating in his own event by growing a mustache, he gives what is apparently a very practiced answer.
"It's there. The light just has to hit it in a certain way."
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