Coach probably won’t make it to Foxborough on Saturday.

That’s a shame, because U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville would learn something important by attending the 124th Army-Navy game. He could have learned the same lesson at Pearl Harbor remembrances in Annapolis and Baltimore on Thursday, but he’s a former football coach who brandishes his old job title as a sign of wisdom.

Football is an easier language for him.

The Alabama Republican doesn’t see the damage he’s done with a monthslong hold on the first woman to serve as Naval Academy superintendent, or the other 400-plus promotions and assignments he blocked. Even though it’s largely over, Tuberville doesn’t see what he did as running a blitz on thousands of careers in the making.

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“Monday was the 100th day of [Vice Adm. Fred W.] Kacher serving as acting superintendent,” U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said through a spokesperson. “This lack of permanent leadership had a real impact on the Naval Academy. However, the primary individuals harmed in this futile exercise were the mid career officers — for the Navy, commanders and captains — the ones who have a real chance of making admiral.”

Maybe Coach could ask the Brigade of Midshipmen and the Corps of Cadets what lessons they took from his futile stand against a little-used Pentagon policy. It pays for travel expenses incurred by women in uniform who want an abortion but are stationed in a state that makes that impossible.

He held the military hostage for 100 days. When he caved on Tuesday except for 11 four-star jobs, the senator had nothing to show for it. Tuberville doesn’t seem repentant.

“The U.S. Senate considered and approved more than 19,000 military nominations or promotions this year,” a spokesperson said. “Coach held 440 of them, or about 2% percent. The argument that a 10-month delay of these 440 nominations disrupted the entire chain of command — especially down to new service academy graduates — has never been supported by the facts.”

He’s right. The mids and cadets are years away from deciding whether to make a career out of the military or leave after their minimum five-year commitments. Most are focused on the fun of Gillette Stadium and the excitement around this historic sports rivalry.

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But they certainly know who won’t be there — Vice Adm. Yvette M. Davids, the woman President Joe Biden picked to break the gender barrier in Annapolis. She is preparing for a belated move from a temporary job in San Diego to Annapolis with her family and staff.

And they know the game will be among the final events for the interim superintendent, Vice Adm. Karcher. Sometime in the next few weeks, he’ll head off to his new assignment as head of the 7th Fleet in Japan.

West Point Cadets hold signs reading “Go Army!” and “Beat Navy!” during the first quarter of the 2022 Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The mids also undoubtedly are watching how this will impact the junior officers who work at the academy. Many will now consider the Tuberville effect as they reach milestones in their careers.

“Obviously, this isn’t happening in a vacuum,” said Kate Marsh Lord of the Secure Families Initiative. “They’re seeing the service being politicized. That will have a negative impact that we’re not even seeing yet in terms of retention and recruitment.”

The Virginia-based initiative works on behalf of service families, the spouses and children of men and women serving in uniform. She and her husband, an Air Force colonel, are discussing Tuberville as they consider whether he should move to civilian life.

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Marsh Lord knows other families are having the same conversation. Is Tuberville a one-time aberration — or the future?

“I think we’ll see it in the next year or two when we’re reporting retention rate,” she said. “We’ll be able to see if the retention rate has dropped.”

Many factors go into this decision. At five years, most lieutenants can leave with their obligation fulfilled. At eight, veterans’ benefits are fully vested, so lieutenant commanders in the Navy and captains in Marines, Army and Air Force factor that into their decisions.

At 10 to 11 years, captains, commanders, majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels have to examine how their careers are progressing.

“These are usually people who, because maybe they didn’t get promoted, are thinking maybe their career isn’t turning into what they really thought it would be,” said one academy grad a decade into the Navy.

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After 20 years, officers consider a whole range of circumstances — is the service expanding or contracting, is their specialty still valuable, are they on the golden path — and decide if they have a shot at admiral or general in the next two decades.

“They try to decide if they, with just a few extra tours, are they going to get a one star,” said the academy grad, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to talk about decisions to stay in the service.

Academy graduates have higher retention rates. It’s one of the reasons the academies exist, pumping out officers at $1 million apiece when there are plenty of training programs that do it for less at colleges and universities.

According to the Naval Academy Alumni Association, 90% to 95% of academy grads stay beyond the minimum five-year commitment that comes with an academy commission. That number drops to 55% after 10 years, and 35% who make it past 20.

It’s worse in the wider fleet.

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A 2022 Navy survey released in June found that only 44% of captains and lower ranks in surface warfare wanted to continue. The 2,500 officers who took part cited stress, bureaucracy, time away from home and a toxic culture.

Tuberville might not be making this worse, but his stunt isn’t making it better either.

“It’s a fear because it wasn’t nipped in the bud by his colleagues, that this could become a trend,” said Marsh Lord, the service family advocate.

No one talked about Tuberville or even the Army-Navy game Thursday at the Fleet Reserve Club in Annapolis.

It’s a club for retired enlisted personnel, and every year on Dec. 7, the members ring a silver bell and cast rose petals onto the water in remembrance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II.

Iron McAfee Locklear was there this year, a Navy veteran who saw action aboard a destroyer in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Now 97 and living with his daughter in Glen Burnie, he enlisted with his mother’s help as a 16-year-old in Baltimore.

“He was a tin can sailor and that says it all,” said Bob Eng, who spoke for Locklear. “He saw it all.”

Iron McAfee Locklear, 97, of Glen Burnie tosses rose petals into the water Thursday during a remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was helped by club members Claire Purdy and Tom Webb.
Iron McAfee Locklear, 97, of Glen Burnie, tosses rose petals into the water Thursday during a remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was helped by club members Claire Purdy and Tom Webb. (Rick Hutzell)

The club is the kind of place that displays the midshipman’s dress uniform jacket of Lt. Brendan Duffy, an academy graduate who died in a night training exercise aboard an aircraft carrier in 1998. It’s the sort of place where a painting of the Marines raising a flag above Iwo Jima is signed by survivors of the battle in 1945.

It’s a place where Tuberville — if he can’t grasp the meaning of all those mids and cadets on Saturday — might understand that he’s playing politics with something bigger than football.

“I can think of a lot more ways to support the military than to not support their leaders,” Marsh Lord said.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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