St. John’s College and the Military

This is the first post of a newly formed partnership with St. John’s College Graduate Institute Journal, of which we share a name. I am excited to venture into this newfound partnership with you, as you will now have access to more student work of Graduate Institute students and tutors. I hope this will be enlightening to anyone interested in attending the Graduate Institute soon or those of you who are interested to learn more about what it means to be a Johnnie.

Here at St. John’s, we are proud to have a remarkable number of students actively serving in or are veterans of the United States military. While our Annapolis Campus has incredibly close ties to the Naval Academy, we have been lucky enough to have military personnel from all branches join in our conversation. In this post, we will hear a conversation between Ms. Reed and Mr. Ely on their experiences at St. John’s College as it relates to being a member of our military.

Mr. Ely: I appreciate your interest in talking with me about our experience as veterans and as members of the Polity. Since we took our seminar online last summer, I haven’t gotten much of a chance to hear about your military experience yet either. What got you interested in the military in the first place?

Ms. Reed: My journey to the military was riding on the coattails of my collegiate soccer career. When I was in high school, I was heavily recruited to play soccer at a number of Division 1 universities as well as international soccer clubs, however none of these opportunities really ignited my passion for the sport. It wasn’t until I visited the Naval Academy that I truly felt my calling. Almost immediately after I walked onto campus, my insides started doing gymnastics, and I knew that this place was my next adventure. There were a few important factors that I weighed into my decision to play soccer at the US Naval Academy: 1) what was the soccer team like, 2) what was the Naval Academy and the military like in general, and the extremely loaded question of 3) what does it all mean? During this very first visit, I learned the answers to the first of two questions, and I deemed it sufficient to commit. I returned home two days later, and immediately started the application process. I played soccer and I also ran track for the Academy during my time there.

It wasn’t until the end of my senior year that I came to understand the weight of the answer to my last question “what does it all mean?” It was then, in my naive, 21 year-old mind, that I came to the realization that the action of committing a service to another person, is the greatest act of humanity that one can provide to another. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks as I listened to President Barack Obama at our graduation:  I was joining the cadre of those who have gone before me and gave their lives in service to our nation and its people. To be willing to give your life to the service of your nation… that is what it is all about.

Ely: As for me, my older brother was an Army medic, so it was something I thought about throughout high school. I was desperately afraid of not doing something “significant” after college, and I wanted the Army to enable that for me. I ended up not applying to a military academy because I had a feeling I would fail if I was one of a thousand students in my class, so I went to Wheaton College in Illinois and did ROTC where I was one of twelve cadets in my class.

The experience was very positive in itself, and it made me think I’d be in the Army forever. I ended up becoming a logistics officer after college and spent seven years on active duty. I liked many things about the experience, not least the ability to live in places very different from my home in Indiana. But I grew to feel like the promise of significance was not being met, that being good at Microsoft Office wasn’t changing lives in the way I’d hoped.

I started taking courses in teaching at Drake University, near where I was serving at the time. I studied teaching because I always loved education and was desperate to try something new. It resonated with me much more than I expected and I ended up completing the teaching degree after I left the Army.

Reed: I’m very interested in your education as a ROTC cadet. I’ve served with plenty of ROTC-commissioned military officers, but I have never had a conversation about the different experiences. How do you think it prepared you for Army and post-Army life?

Ely: That actually brings me back to you “what did it all mean?” question from earlier. I still ask that all the time regarding my military career. 

I think I understood what it meant best while I was in college. In an ROTC program, I felt like I had a small community within the broader college that was dedicated to a particular task, that we were a group preparing for “something greater.” It gave a sense of significance to the drills and exercises that we endured. Because we could shift our attention outward toward a halcyon future of significance, that theoretical significance was reflected back on our daily experience.

The trouble for me came with the doing of it. While I didn’t find my time as an officer actively harmful, I was never able to pinpoint who I was helping. The recurring public invocations of “thank you for your service” were always confusing and internally I felt like responding: “I’m serving no one but myself.” I made more money than most of my peers out of college. The work was not particularly stressful, intellectually or physically. And I felt guilty about both of those things because there were plenty of people in service who did help people, who made less than they deserved, who felt a lot of stress and strain in their work. I just wasn’t one of those people.

Leaving the military to become a teacher was probably also an effort to recapture that sense I had in ROTC, of putting my hope into the importance of the future. As a teacher, you can tell yourself that you will impact your students their whole life. Even if it’s not true, and it usually isn’t, it helps me deflect that sense of purposelessness in my work.

Reed: At the Naval Academy, I felt like an imposter, a college student playing dress up, counting down the hours and minutes until I could change out of my uniform and just blend in. There are definitely times, even now, where I feel almost ashamed of my military involvement, especially when people said “Thank you for your service.”I found myself stumbling over my words. I just smiled and gently bowed my head at first, not knowing what to say, and trying to make sure they didn’t leave the situation feeling bad for speaking up. Eventually, the best thing I could come up with in response was, “It’s my pleasure” – chalking it all up to folks expressing ’thanks’ to any and all service members as to relay their ’thanks’ to the entire organization and what it stands for, and not really specifically me and what I’ve done, other than volunteer…I guess.

I learned a lot about very specific aspects of managing the folks getting their hands dirty, but I never really went into those trenches; tactically and strategically speaking I did get to do some very distinct and complicated things.

My naval career has taken me to closed-door war-gaming with a handful of foreign nations in joint air/sea/land exercises, it has put me in the lead of major military operations planning, and enabled me to confidently coordinate sustained tactical warfare maneuvers in high-stress environments. And now it’s led me to be an instructor at the US Naval Academy.

Ely: So I’m curious: As your military career was coming to an end, what made you choose to spend your free time across the street at St. John’s?

Reed: I have never truly felt fulfilled in my formal education, and it wasn’t until I was applying to SJC and writing my statement that I realized I had been missing something extremely important: a holistic approach to the cultivation of ideas, open-minded collaboration, and creativity. Throughout my career I have worked incredibly hard to better understand the inner and outer workings of mechanical, hydraulic, and auxiliary equipment on board ships; I studied incessantly, walked around, learned everything I could possibly know about a ship… and I still felt as if I accomplished very little.

I believe this is because there was never a holistic approach to my formal education. I had operated for my entire naval career as a cog in the machine, never able to really quench the thirst for knowledge outside of the Navy publications or shipboard equipment/operating instructions. My formal education was fraught with lists, formulas, systems, mechanics, and binary computation. You can imagine the sock-rocking moments of comprehension, apprehension, and collaboration I had when we discussed Euclid and Lobachevsky this summer!

Ely: I think I felt the same way. I’ve always loved school. Something about the sense of Accomplishing Knowledge, of being able to prove with a letter or a paper that you were wise was always very satisfying. But the older I got, the more I felt that I was just good at going to school, not really any wiser for having gone.

I heard about St. John’s almost by accident when I was getting my teaching degree. I found it hard to imagine a place without grades, without lectures, without anything but reading, conversation, and writing. I didn’t know if it was right, but I knew it was interesting. I think deep down I was always looking for something distinct. What I liked best about the Army was feeling like I was having a unique experience, that I and a few others had a special understanding, a collective experience that no outsider could share.

I was attracted to SJC because I wanted a wildly unusual education. Now after two semesters, I’m starting to wonder if I fetishised it all a bit. I entered the Polity expecting to be able to accomplish and master a new way of being. But that was just a substitution of the same impulses that made me join the Army, a desperate need to prove that I’d had quantifiably valuable experiences. But as I’ve talked to St. John’s graduates each summer, I see they all feel like they’ve only just started their education.

I think the military led me to think I could gain a rank or a duty position and then move on, having fully mastered what came before me. I could point to my record and check off my accomplishments. I feel like St. John’s is teaching me that there are no accomplishments and there is no mastery. There’s an unfinished process.

Reed: You know, I feel my roles in the Navy were important and I have been very successful, but I still feel as if I’m without a purpose. Transitioning out of the military has been an emotionally complex experience for me; knowing that I’m moving from a regimented, black-or-white system into a technicolored abyss has been daunting – you can probably relate. SJC has, since I was midshipman, always been this fabled place outside the walls, where the importance wasn’t placed on grades or performance, but comprehension and collaboration. I never thought I would have been able to experience this, and it’s very exciting now that I am able to! Some folks here say SJC was a transformational experience for them, and I have to agree.

Even through a pandemic, in an online environment, St. John’s has appealed to me. In the online environment I’ve found that several aspects of the conversation have been heightened: the creative silences, enforcement of orderly and respectful collaboration, and combined efforts to stay on task are all perfect examples! What I think is important to call attention to again is the fact that everyone joined and participated in the conversation to the best of their abilities for the sake of their education, and for their classmates.

The online environment brought with it some comedic relief that St. John’s conversations have never experienced before: computer/WiFi glitches or lags, unmuted microphones, speakerphone echoes. While some could argue the immediacy takes away some of the authenticity of and time for reflection in the conversation, I’d say it helps the train of thought continue without any hitches.

But, all of those amazing things considered, we lost a lot of the humanity of the conversation in moving it into an online environment. The shared emotional experiences and expressed intellectual response to the raw, unfiltered conversation have been stunted to say the least. Additionally, we’ve all lost the pre- and post-class discussions, which some would argue are the most important aspects of the conversation. Lastly, and most apparently, the camaraderie among the GI has been more difficult to build and maintain without ASG and Galway; not that we’ve lost it, but it’s been even more so a challenge.

As I reflect on my decision to continue with my SJC education; it wasn’t my first choice to proceed with it online, even though as I’m typing this I realize that I have more experience as an online student at SJC than I do as an in-person student. But, I’m sure I align with most of my peers in desperately wanting to have been back in the BBC discussing Shakespeare, and Euclid, Darwin, etc. this summer. I realized, with no great effort in concluding, that I wanted to discuss these books and converse with my classmates in any way that I possibly could; that the desire to understand and the immediacy of that desire was so important, that it didn’t matter what platform it was on, I was signing up! I haven’t felt this  need to be a part of something bigger than myself, and be successful in an organization since I was first commissioned!

Ely: I agree that although the online format was far from my preferred way of engaging with the Program, I didn’t really consider not doing it. The prospect of an empty summer, of having to wait two years between seminars, was too much. I’d started a process, and I felt like I had to keep processing. I’m very grateful for the groups I got to spend my summer with, but it certainly wasn’t the same. I think our tutors did a good job of simulating the in-class experience, and I always felt excited about our conversations. But there was no way to simulate all the other conversations that enriched the experience outside of class.

Reed: I feel like spending time at SJC has definitely made me reevaluate my post-military plans. I definitely find value in different things than I had before: the conversation, the community, the empowerment. I was on a road into the unknown and aiming to rely on my military brethren, but what SJC has helped me with is understanding what I bring to the table, and how I can help and empower others at the table to bring forth all they have. When we work together in seminar, I trust you fully that you’ll bring forth your best, and I’ll do the same. Collaborative education is all about working towards a common goal (whatever it may be). SJC has not only opened up these intellectual doors, but it has also given me a community of people who want to do the same.

Ely: That seems like a great note to end on. I knew when I came to St. John’s that I wanted to be a part of whatever it was that was happening on campus. And even if I didn’t get to go on campus this summer, I’m grateful for the community we have that is interested in doing this weird, collective project. When I left the military, the thing I knew I would miss most was the camaraderie, the sense of shared purpose. I found a new kind of purpose and a new kind of community in Annapolis. And I’m really glad we got to be part of it together this summer, even if only virtually.

–See you around the table

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