Vice Adm. Sean Buck looked over the sea of white uniforms Thursday — 1,200 young men and women freshly shorn and remade over the course of a single day into the style of an incoming class of Naval Academy plebes. Then he gave them a look that only admirals can give and told them about how tough the weeks ahead would be.
Hot. Sweaty. Hard — the kind to make you struggle with your decision to join the Navy. Maybe hard enough to make you cry for your mom at night.
“When you doubt yourself this summer, remember you’re pledged to an ideal bigger than you,” he said, voice booming from atop the front steps of Bancroft Hall.
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The Navy loves rituals, and the Naval Academy may love them more than any other part of the service.
Thursday was a foundational moment in that long chain of rites, Induction Day. As the drums beat toward 18:00 hours, these midshipmen candidates were inching toward a line. On one side was high school. You can talk about the morning buzz of clippers taking away youthful locks, or learning the rudiments of a salute and marching in unison.
But the I-Day oath is the real start of being a midshipman.
This was almost the final symbolic spectacle of Buck’s four unprecedented years as superintendent in Annapolis. Next up should be the change-of-command ceremony. After 40 years in the service, Buck will find himself on the other side of the line.
Except right now, the superintendent’s relief is nowhere on the horizon.
Rear Adm. Yvette Davids’ nomination to be the first woman superintendent is one of more than 250 military promotions and appointments hung up in the U.S. Senate by a protest over abortion policy. It’s one of several affecting the military in Maryland, including the leaders of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command at Fort Meade.
U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville says his quixotic fight with the Pentagon is about stopping transport for service members seeking to end a pregnancy from bases in states where abortion is outlawed to states like Maryland where it remains a protected reproductive right. The Alabama Republican and former Auburn football coach says the policy violates the Hyde Act, which bars using federal funds to pay for abortions.
“Follow the law, or change it,” he said June 15, as he blocked an attempt to approve Davids’ nomination.
Messing with tradition means one thing in the Senate. Changing it at Annapolis is something else.
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The mids walked single file into T-Court, faces worn from their first day in uniform. Families crowded around the perimeter, trying to distinguish one teenager on the cusp from another.
Behind the plebes came their minders, the upper-class mids who will spend the next weeks on their tails — keeping them going at a challenging pace, but also keeping them safe. The difference was not small as they created ranks to the left and right of the seated plebes, literally looking over them.
White shoes marched in place, beating out a rhythm for the uniformed summer staff filing in behind them. A female voice barks an order, and the cadence halts in unison. Another bark and ranks snap right.
“The oath that you’ll take today may be your first, but it will not be your last. You’ll reconfirm it when you graduate in four years,” Buck said.
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Davids knows this day well. She stood there in 1985 and graduated in 1989. But she won’t be taking over in Annapolis anytime soon.
The Navy says she’s still stationed in San Diego, where her husband, Rear Adm. Keith Davids, heads the Naval Special Warfare Command. It’s the first time the ceremony has been delayed since the 1960s when the outgoing superintendent had a heart attack.
But if one senator can do this on abortion, what’s to prevent others from demanding a litmus test for future promotions? What prevents someone unhappy with another Pentagon decision from doing this, from disrupting the cycle of new oaths and physical trials?
“These are nonpartisan, noncontroversial promotions,” said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who serves as chair of the academy’s civilian oversight board. “These men and women who are serving our nation in uniform should not be played for political purposes, whatever the motivation.”
Some conservatives have certainly gone after Buck for his decisions while superintendent — attacks with more than a whiff of politics in them.
In November, U.S. Reps. Greg Stube, Matt Gaetz and Ronnie Jackson — all members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus — were among eight Republicans who wrote Buck, questioning his decision to start expulsion proceedings against midshipmen who refused to obey Navy orders requiring COVID vaccinations. The only reason he didn’t get hauled before the House Armed Forces Committee was the Pentagon’s decision to lift the policy as the public health emergency eased.
And in May, the conservative group Judicial Watch posted the results of a Freedom of Information request titled “Judicial Watch: Pentagon IG Concludes Naval Academy Superintendent Made False Statements in Effort to End Career of Midshipman.” The inspector general looked into Buck’s conversations with superiors about his recommendation to dismiss the midshipman who used social media in 2020 to call for military force against Black Lives Matter protesters.
The IG got a tip through its hotline on the allegation. Inspectors found that some of the ways Buck characterized his findings were not strictly true — the midshipman expressed remorse for his tweets but may have never confirmed them. The inquiry concluded he hadn’t lied to his superior officers, which would have violated the Military Code of Uniform Justice, and recommended no further action.
The mid was eventually allowed to graduate and join the Navy as an ensign in 2021. But it’s not a leap to read the complaint as someone’s attempt to settle a score against Buck.
Then, on Monday, the director of The American Military Project at The Claremont Institute — considered the nerve center of the American right — published a piece calling for Republican lawmakers to go further than Tuberville.
“Senator Tuberville is giving conservatives their first chance to consider who, exactly, is leading our crumbling and tired military,” Will Thibeau wrote in The American Conservative.
Tuberville’s defense of his actions came after he blocked Cardin’s request for approval by unanimous consent of Davids’ promotion to a three-star admiral and her posting to Annapolis.
“Delaying this promotion is a gratuitous, self-inflicted wound to our nation’s security,” Cardin said on the Senate floor on June 15.
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Buck gave way to the top Marine at the Naval Academy, Col. James McDonough III. The commandant of midshipmen, something like a dean of students but a lot more intimidating, ordered the plebes to raise their right hands.
“Having been appointed a Midshipman in the United States Navy, I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ..." he said, repeating the words he heard in 1990.
And then the roar came back, from those 1,200 kids in white.
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There’s no hint that Tuberville’s stand on Davids is different. He’s blocking all approvals by unanimous consent, a parliamentary shortcut that prevents the Senate from taking three days to hold a roll call vote on each promotion.
“This is not targeting Sean Buck in any way. There are now almost 250 promotions on hold, including the commandant of the Marine Corps and chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” said retired Marine Corps Maj Gen. Andrew Davis, who lives in Annapolis. “The number could grow to more than 600 if he keeps the hold. The real danger is that if DoD and the Senate cave on this, it opens a Pandora’s box for future ideological holds with all nominees as hostages.”
It’s also, uh, a pain in the rear, admiral.
Davids has twin sons still in school, and while she hasn’t given interviews or talked about her plans, it’s normal military procedure to schedule transfers during the summer to limit the disruption to families.
Retired Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky came to Annapolis from Hawaii as the spokesperson for Adm. Charles Larson, whose impeccable record led him to the job of superintendent for a second time after a massive cheating scandal in the 1990s. The change happened over the summer, allowing Jurkowsky’s two young daughters to ease into Annapolis schools.
“My family move would have been held up if Larson’s appointment was held up,” he said.
The Navy declined to comment about how it will fill in for Davids once Buck’s planned retirement date arrives later this summer. And Tuberville’s larger point is correct in the case of the Naval Academy — not having the new superintendent in place is not going to shut the place down. The job is akin to a college president.
But, Jurkowsky said, most important decisions will be put on hold as the academy waits for a new leader.
It also blunts the historic message of appointing the first women superintendent: that the Navy is finally — 40 years after the first women graduated from the academy — moving to an acceptance of equality. Tuberville has tarnished the message with an asterisk.
“We don’t want the military involved in politics,” Cardin told his colleagues. “We do everything we can to keep them insulated from internal politics of the Senate and the House. and that’s exactly what my colleague is doing by this hold.”
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And then the plebes are free, at least until their next formation, milling toward family lining the grass on either side of Stribling Walk.
Hugs, doubtful head rubs of newly mown stubble, and just a few tears of farewell to first youth. And for those who don’t have anyone to lend a moment of support, plenty of surrogates.
“If you don’t have family here, over here. Hugs over here,” a parent said, spreading a blanket. “And free cellphone use, too!”