Naval Academy Admissions Outreach Conference

In early May 2008 the Naval Academy hosted its 10th Annual Admissions Outreach Conference. The title of this year’s event was, “Diversity: Built on a Solid Foundation, Forging a Stronger Future.” Disappointingly, still today gay and lesbian midshipmen are forced to compromise their honor and integrity on a daily basis — as required by the military’s embarrassing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — and create a heterosexual facade lest their truth be discovered, resulting in shameful separation from USNA. No one at the Academy dares to take a leadership role in changing the outdated policy that is an embarrassment to our nation. In the past, Academy leaders have pretended that we do not exist within the Brigade of Midshipmen. In the hopes of bringing a mature perspective to a childish personnel policy, two of us USNA Out members attended the Admissions Outreach Conference. What follows is our account of how the two days unfolded:

Day 1 – Thursday, May 8 – 1:00 p.m.

The conference started off on a positive note: When I checked in I saw that my nametag read, ‘Jeff Petrie ’89, President, USNA Out,’ per my request when registering. The print was so small on the nametags, however, that people would have to be a foot away or less to read it. Same was true with all of the nametags.

The Commandant, Rear Admiral Select Margaret Klein ’81, opened the conference — talking to the audience of about 80 attendees comprised mostly of accomplished black and Latino military alumni. For about 20 minutes she spoke of the importance of diversity, and about three midshipmen whose lives she encapsulated for us. The mids she talked about were male and female and of a variety of racial backgrounds. When she mentioned the the Naval Academy is for its midshipmen an ‘Equal Opportunity Employer,’ I was tempted to speak up, but refrained.

I learned that VADM Jeff Fowler, the new Supe who made many controversial changes that appear to be a step back in time, started the Diversity Office not long after he arrived. Joe Rubino, the Diversity Director who appears to be straight and white, spoke about the importance of diversity for about 30 minutes.

Dean of Admissions Stephen Latta then made a presentation about recruiting a diverse Brigade of Midshipmen. The Brigade is today about 22% minority, which does not reflect American society nor the Navy fleet. The fleet is about 30-40% minority, he said. Currently women make up 19.4% of the student body at the Academy. According to Dean Latta, the biggest challenge of Admissions is reaching out to the African-American community. He told us that half of the Hispanic and Black midshipmen come to the Academy via the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island. When the Dean talked about planning out to the year 2038, I saw a door open for the Q&A session. I let about six people ask their questions of him before raising my hand. I could feel my heart beat in my neck, and blood rush to my face as I asked, ‘I’m impressed with all you do to recruit a diverse incoming class each year, and how far out you have planned — clear to the year 2038. Something that is now relatively close on the horizon is the lifting of the ban on gays in the military. Have you considered how to incorporate recruiting the best and brightest of young gay and lesbian Americans?’ Appearing a bit flustered and irritated with me, he tried to play on the words ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ like ‘We don’t ask about that and they don’t tell.’ It was an asinine response. I responded with, ‘Too bad.’ There were a few more questions before we moved into the next session.

CAPT Yolanda Reagans ’81, Special Assistant to the CNO for Diversity, spoke about the importance of diversity for about 45 minutes.

Perhaps the most interesting session of the day was when six black mids came out and sat on a panel, including the Brigade Commander — who was a varsity football player, a poet, and sings with the Gospel Choir. Audience members asked questions of the mids about their experience, their recommendations, their reasons for attending the Academy, and their plans for the future. Each midshipman was outstanding in his or her own way. A very impressive group of young people, whose presence at the Naval Academy made me even more proud of our alma mater.

We took a bathroom break, and then split up into three groups to brainstorm and talk about recruiting strategies. The groups were divided up by region. Living in DC, I am in Region 2, which consists of the Southeast from Florida to Maryland. Three female LTs ran our session. They are the ones in charge of diversity recruiting in Region 2. When the conversation turned to methods for reaching young people, I thought I would mention using email distribution lists and online networking sites like Facebook and MySpace (which I have been looking at in my job at The Phillips Collection art museum in just the last couple of weeks). When the time came for me to make my suggestion, I first identified myself by name and class — as all participants were doing — but then I threw in that I am the President of the gay and lesbian alumni group of the Naval Academy. (I apologize for leaving out you very important B, T, and straight allied members… but there wasn’t time for me to include all of us in my intro.) I couldn’t tell whether or not any heads turned.

When the session ended, the day was done. Time to head out to Alumni House for a welcome reception. I stopped in to visit our friends at the Annapolis Inn before going to Ogle Hall. There at Ogle I spoke with two female mids, and two female alumni, all of color. The Director of Operations of the USNA AA made a rather long-winded welcome speech, and then I went to get my umbrella and leave. As I was walking toward the door, I saw the Dean in the room where the bar was, by himself. I stepped in and said to him, ‘I invite you to further consider your answer to my question earlier today about recruiting the best and brightest of gay and lesbian Americans.’ He replied in a more friendly tone than he’d shot at me earlier in the day, and said something about how the law was out of his hands. I told him that there are still things he can do to prepare.

Day 2 – Friday, May 8 – 7:30 a.m.

Friday was a phenomenal day at the Admissions Outreach Conference. There were three incredible highlights, and only a few discouraging bumps along the way. I’ve marked the three highlights in case you don’t have time to read all this.

The day began at 7:30 a.m. with a continental breakfast in Alumni Hall. I stood around with other conference attendees on the basketball arena floor, and visited with a guy from the Class of 1982 who wanted to know more about the art museum where I work.

USNA Out member Ralph Brunson ’81 drove down to Annapolis early that morning from New Jersey. I met Ralph in the lobby at the check-in station, where he picked up his conference packet and name tag. His name tag read, ‘Ralph Brunson ’81, President, Boeing LGBT Affinity Group.’ As I indicated in the Day 1 account of the conference, the printing on the name tags was so small that our out tags weren’t easy to read. (Everyone’s name tags were difficult to read.) It was great to have Ralph there, particularly because it was the day that the Supe was making his only appearance at the conference. Asking questions of the Supe in a public forum is made easier when there is more than one of us USNA Out members present.

Conference attendees took their seats in the stands of Alumni Hall — in the same place where the BoT meetings take place — and we were welcomed by Don Montgomery ’74, Admissions Outreach Coordinator. I had not reviewed the schedule of the day yet, and was a bit surprised when Don introduced our first speaker, VADM Jeff Fowler, the Supe. Yikes! The Supe spoke mostly about the importance of diversity, for about 25 minutes. As you might be sensing from yesterday’s account, it might have been a more interesting conference if we — the choir — did not get preached to quite so much about the importance of diversity. There are of course some members of the choir who believe that diversity only applies to the minority of which they are a member. More on that later.

HIGHLIGHT: At the end of the Supe’s talk, I wanted to be sure that I got my question in. (I had a dream on Thursday night about how to phrase my question.) I raised my hand, and was the second person to ask a question of him. The wireless mic attached to the sound system of the basketball arena was passed to me, so that all attendees could hear the question. Having Ralph sitting there next to me helped the words flow smoothly with no wavering in my voice: ‘I am Jeff Petrie, Class of 1989, and I’m the President of the gay and lesbian alumni group of the Naval Academy. In his directives and policies, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral Mullen appears to be preparing the armed forces for the lifting of the ban on gays in the military. What are you doing to prepare the Academy so that the transition is smooth when the law changes?’ With none of the angst and irritation that I’d received from the Dean the day before, the Supe replied in a respectful and courteous tone. He said, ‘As Superintendent I’m here to enact the directives of the Chairman. When I’m directed to make that change I’m prepared to do so.’ There was nothing negative in his answer. The question did not seem to catch him by surprise. This is just a guess, but I sensed that perhaps he *had* considered the question before. Also just a guess, I don’t think that he has done anything to prepare.

The second presentation of the day, called ‘Marketing to the Millenial Generation,’ was made by an advertising executive from Campbell-Ewald Advertising. I unfortunately did not get his name. The man was in his mid- to late-40s, was not an alumnus of USNA, had kinda spiky blonde hair, and was dressed in a fashionable but casual suit. Based on his presentation it appeared as if his agency creates ads for Navy recruiting. He talked to us about the new generation of Americans who are reaching recruiting age for the military. They’ve never known a President whose name is not Clinton or Bush… They blur the lines of real life and online life… Most have cell phones, some have PDAs, and a portion have laptop computers. He made many sweeping generalizations about young people aged 8-14, to which at least one conference attendee objected. Interestingly, the ad exec talked about the success of Senator Barack Obama’s online fundraising campaigns, which have garnered him 1.5 million donors. He talked about the value of web networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Today’s young people are for the most part ‘media junkies,’ who do not plan to stay in one job for long. They expect praise just for showing up to work. He stressed that they want to work in an open and honest environment… That got Ralph to thinking about a great idea for a question.

HIGHLIGHT: At the end of the Millenial presentation, Ralph was handed the wireless mic to ask his question of the advertising guy: ‘Realizing that today’s young people want to work in an environment that is open and honest, how do we excite them about the Navy when some assignments are classified, and while the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy is still in effect?’ The man responded with, ‘Being gay or lesbian is not a big deal to today’s young people. They would definitely prefer that the ban be lifted. About the classified work assignments, most young people would view that as a plus because of the danger and excitement involved in that kind of work.’ From his enthusiastic response, it seemed the ad exec nailed the question regarding DADT — for everyone present to hear!

For the third program of the day we divided up into regional subgroups for a breakout session about successes and failures in Naval Academy diversity recruiting. The three Navy LTs in charge of diversity in Region 2 (Maryland to Florida) who had run the breakout session on Thursday returned.

Successes in Region 2 include: 1) Exposing minorities to USNA via college fairs and school visits, 2) Gaining access to Baltimore city schools, and 3) Use of local resources.

Failures in Region 2 include: 1) Mentorship, 2) Getting young people to attend recruiting events, and 3) Networking and communications.

The lieutenants’ plan of action moving forward is to increase awareness in the target cities (Miami, Baltimore, Washington, and Atlanta); more effectively identify affinity groups; and utilize the Blue & Gold Officer network and alumni in underrepresented areas. Specifically, they talked about BGOs using the ‘Class News’ section in Shipmate to help achieve minority recruiting awareness. When telling us how we alumni and BGOs could help them achieve their minority recruiting goals, one of the LTs thought it totally appropriate to talk about networking through churches. She said, ‘Most of you go to church, right?’ as a lead-in to her point. It felt odd to have religion brought into the discussion.

During the breakout session Ralph realized that there were two female classmates of his present. Excited about saying hello to them, he tracked them down during a break in the programming. In greeting them, he mentioned what drove him to attend the Admissions Outreach Conference. His classmate CDR Lilia Ramirez, USN (retired) told him that young people have many choices, and if they’re gay they should go to school elsewhere. His other female classmate did not speak up in disagreement with Ramirez. Ramirez’s intolerance of us was frustrating, and it emphasized how important our presence and participation was at the conference. It is truly incredible when someone who is a minority rejects people of another minority.

After the break, everyone came back together and the officer representatives of each presented what was discussed in their respective session. Consistent across the country were the recruiting problems faced due to ‘academically challenged’ school systems, competition with non-military colleges and universities, anti-military community leaders and educators, misperceptions about USNA and its relation to war, and attracting the interest of midshipman candidates at a young age and then maintaining that interest. The officer representative of Region 1 — USMC Captain Natasha Robinson, who works in the Northeast — acknowledged that a significant challenge of hers is overcoming the negative perception of the Commander-in-Chief, particularly in New York City.

We broke for lunch in the (new? improved?) King Hall. Construction has been going on for quite some time now on King Hall, but I must say it doesn’t look too different from what I recall from 20 years ago. We were fed some modern take on fishwiches (not the tastiest) and goopy, fatty Philly cheese steak sandwiches (not the healthiest). Salad, rolls, home fries, and rich cheesecake rounded out the carb-loaded meal. I’m sure I gained a few pounds from that meal. I sat next to the Naval Academy Alumni Association’s Operations and Facilities Manager Ron Casey ’75, across from a black two-star admiral, and near a friendly black man from the Class of 1954, who came from Pacific Palisades, California, to attend the event. Ron Casey is a wirey, high energy guy. He tells me that he remembers me, but I’m not sure that he actually does until he re-realizes that I am the President of USNA Out — at which time he mentions something to me about how all alumni should come together and not split into factions. When I tell him that gay and lesbian alumni have split off because of the treatment many of us have received, he discounts it. He is not interested in hearing about the experience of others. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that he works for the Naval Academy Alumni Association. Perhaps he has convinced himself that all is good with the alumni association in order to ensure his daily mental health at work. I asked him about the dinner honoring Wesley Brown ’49 that evening in the new $50 million Wesley A. Brown Field House, and he told me that all conference attendees were invited to attend — and in fact had been included in the seating arrangement. Visiting a little with the two-star admiral and the grad from the Class of 1954 was a total pleasure. We did some cheers by table… Remember, ‘Go Navy Navy Navy!’ and then the next table would yell, ‘Beat Army Army Army!’ ? No one tested their lungs, nor were we served cannonballs with hard sauce, denying us of any opportunity to eat twelve of them before the afternoon sessions.

Ralph and I excused ourselves and headed up to the baby grand piano in Smoke Hall for a few minutes of musical fun before the scheduled conference group photo in the rotunda. Incredibly, Ralph can sit down at a piano and go to town playing songs from a wide repertoire of classical music, showtunes, and ragtime! As our fellow conference-goers passed through Smoke Hall on their way from King Hall to the rotunda, some smiled and a few ‘skipped’ to the tunes. Ralph and I had to laugh out loud as he delivered a flawless ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine’ from the musical ‘Showboat’!

After about five or six energizing songs Ralph and I joined the others in the rotunda for the photo. We stood in the front row, near the Brigade Commander. I’m not sure if we’re ever going to see that photo… Maybe in Shipmate?

We stopped in at NFCU, then perused the Midshipmen Store where we each bought dark blue ‘USNA Staff’ t-shirts. Then we unfurled our umbrellas and stepped out into the wind and rain for the walk to Mahan Hall. The change in venue was a bit refreshing. The first presentation of the afternoon was made by Boatswain’s Mate Chief Junior Ashwood, who is the Fleet Diversity Coordinator at the Naval Academy. He talked about the processes involved in bringing enlisted sailors and Marines to USNA, and addressed the program’s successes and failures.

The second session of the afternoon was a discussion called the “Professional Development Panel” by six minority officers and civilians, all alumni of the Naval Academy. The program was led by her holiness Lilia Ramirez, which was distracting. She talked about church, and about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which was to me very off-putting. An admiral talked about some of the work he does, and about church… A white grad from the Class of 2002 who sells municipal bonds on Wall Street spoke about how easy his job is and how anyone can do it… Navy Captain William Morales ’82, CO of the training facility at Great Lakes, talked about his job… and Janie Mines ’80 talked about church, about her God, and the many blessings she has received from her God in running her non-profit organization that takes drug addicts and criminals and turns their lives around. The panel was a total turn-off, and it dragged on for so incredibly long that after more than an hour of the downer presentation Ralph and I made a plan to discreetly exit. We left at about 3:30 p.m., with only the closing remarks remaining as the last program of the conference.

We did not return for the closing remarks, instead heading over to the Annapolis Inn to meet up with our friends Joe and Alex. We recounted the day for them over a delicious bottle of cabernet sauvignon, then excused ourselves and took a walk around downtown Annapolis.

HIGHLIGHT: Returning to the Academy grounds at about 6:30 allowed us to catch the last half hour of cocktail hour at the Wesley A. Brown Field House, leading up to the 7 p.m. dinner. As we walked into the lobby of the brand new, beautiful athletic facility (a replacement for Halsey?), I saw that Wesley Brown himself was sitting in a wheelchair greeting guests. He was mobbed. There appeared to be a line of people waiting to greet him, and so Ralph and I got in line to do the same. Some people were just crowding in, but I waited patiently for my turn. When I got to the front of the line, a Navy lieutenant in his whites told Mr. Brown that it was time to go to dinner — and he started to pull him away. I strategically and courteously stopped them, and introduced myself: “Before you go, sir, please allow me to quickly introduce myself. I’m Jeff Petrie, Class of 1989. I’m the President of the gay and lesbian alumni group of the Naval Academy.’ He responded in a friendly manner. I believe that he has a clear understanding of what it is like for gay and lesbian midshipmen at the Academy today, and what it is like for us LGBT and straight allied alumni.

As cocktail hour ended, Ralph and I joined in the procession heading toward the dining area, right behind Admiral Trost and George Watt, and just ahead of the Supe and his daughter. With my wine glass I clinked her glass in good cheer. I said hello to Admiral Trost.

The dinner was fabulous. Crabcakes, mashed potatoes, asparagus, and steak. There was an impressive fireworks show launched out over the Severn. There were speeches by interesting and important minority alumni and DC’s Member of Congress. The Gospel Choir sang two songs. Several presentations brought tears to Wesley Brown’s eyes, including the presentation of a gorgeous life-sized painting of him as a newly-commissioned ensign. There were commemorative coins for each guest to take home as a keepsake, with an image of Midshipman Wesley Brown on one side, and the Naval Academy seal on the other. ‘Navy Blue and Gold’ was somehow not as touching to me as it usually is… perhaps because I was exhausted from a wonderful, emotional, successful day in attendance at the 2008 Admissions Outreach Conference.

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to USNA Out member Ralph Brunson for taking time out of his vacation to come to Annapolis for the conference. And I would like to thank all USNA Out members, on whose shoulders we were able to stand. Together we can make a difference!

Go Navy!


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