“Ahead of me was a gorgeous 100k-ton aircraft carrier, above me were F-18s passing low enough to give me goosebumps, behind me was a breathtakingly vibrant sunset, the likes that can only be seen in the middle of the ocean, and beneath me was a kaleidoscope of color as we plowed through clouds of bio-luminescent plankton. I have never felt so alive.”
By Paul Culp, MA(Oxon.)
One of the pleasures of being involved in education is watching former students go on to live fascinating lives. A recent case in point is U.S. Navy Ensign Reagan Stromback of Chandler, Arizona, who graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy this year, was promptly commissioned in the service of her choice, and as of this writing is on temporary assignment at the Academy while awaiting the beginning of her training as an aviator.
The Coaching Educator is no stranger to the process of seeking an academy appointment, and we know that realistic expectations are essential. Not many people are better qualified than Ensign Stromback to tell us what to expect of contemporary academy life, so I caught up with her while I still could.
Why did you seek an academy appointment?
I have known that I wanted to serve in the military since I was very young; back when all of my friends wanted to be princesses and ballerinas, I wanted to be a sniper in the Marines. I think the first time the service academies popped up on my radar was when I was watching the TV show JAG with my dad when I was eight or nine and they mentioned that the main character was from Annapolis. I knew instantly that I wanted to be just like Harmon Rabb and be a fighter pilot, drive a Stingray Corvette and maybe be a JAG lawyer someday, so the next logical step was to go to the same school he went to. When I was 12 my father took me to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and that’s when I became aware of the existence of service academies besides Navy. But beyond all of that, I knew that I had no desire to have a “normal” college experience. I like structure, I like rules, and I like people who are driven and who are working towards a similar goal.
Why USMMA? Did you also apply at other academies?
As I mentioned before, the Naval Academy was always my dream growing up, but the best part about growing up is that you get to make new dreams when reality steps in. I applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy and, of course, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The only reason I even knew about USMMA was because my sister, who was attending USNA at the time, told me that I should look into the Merchant Marine Academy. Prior to this, I, being the desert rat that I was, had never heard of the merchant marine, much less the academy. When I asked her what they were, she replied, “I don’t know, but you can go any branch out of there,” and I was sold. Granted, it took being rejected from the other two academies to convince me to go to Kings Point (what we fondly call USMMA), but when I arrived at Kings Point I quickly learned that I was not unique in that back-story.
My understanding is that graduates of USMMA have their pick of the different military services, plus the merchant marine. Was that a selling point for you?
That was the number one selling point for me…I have come to sincerely appreciate the diversity of options available to Kings Point grads. I have friends in every branch of the military, every branch’s special forces, every U.S.-flagged shipping company, and beyond…It is honestly amazing; the Kings Point community is genuinely a global network, with alumni in unimaginable places (we even have an astronaut). The reach of our alumni is shocking, considering how small our academy is and how relatively young we are (established in 1943), but the strength and support of our alumni is unrivaled, and I think that is all because of the amount of options available to us upon graduation, coupled with the rigorous training we receive.
What was the application process like? Walk us through it.
The application process was rather rigorous, as was the application process for the other academies. They all require a nomination from either a Senator, Congressman or (if you’re seriously connected) the Vice President. So that in itself is an entirely different application process with its own essays, letters of recommendation and paperwork etc., and that process should be started sometime during your junior year of high school. What I remember from the USMMA…was a lot of paperwork to fill out, an essay or two, and I believe four letters of recommendation. On top of the formal application and the nomination, which must be specific to the academy you are pursuing, you can get multiple ones for multiple academies. I myself received a nomination to USMMA from Sen. John McCain, and nominations for USNA, USAFA and USMMA from Congressman Matt Salmon. You need to submit your SAT and ACT scores, and you must also submit a CFA (Candidate Fitness Assessment) which had things such as a timed mile run, flexed arm hang (or pull-ups, if you are able), shuttle run, push-ups, sit-ups, basketball throw, etc. All of these make up the application…The best way to make yourself look desirable to the academies is by having a well-rounded application. I had a job all throughout high school, I lettered in two varsity sports, I started a club at my school, was president of another, and was a member of many others. I did a lot of community service and was blessed enough to receive some incredible letters of recommendation (Thanks, Mr. Culp)…Do not let an average GPA discourage you. I certainly was not the best student in high school, but I had a very packed resume.
What was the curriculum like?
For a girl that was born and raised in the desert, rarely saw water, and had been on a total of three boats in my life, I was completely overwhelmed by the curriculum at USMMA…Kings Point is very heavy on maritime courses, while we take the math and science courses required to graduate with a bachelor of science. Kings Point is honestly nothing more than a glorified federally funded trade school. Those who grew up on the water and were used to boats and nautical terminology had a much easier time navigating through deck courses. Meanwhile, I felt like I was drowning. But the thing that sets Kings Point apart is that your shipmates are always ready to put in the additional time to keep you afloat, no matter how much additional time it took…The most difficult thing about the curriculum at USMMA is that, due to sea year, we run on a trimester system and have to fit four years of learning in three years. This is due to the fact that we spend a total of a year at sea during our time as midshipmen at USMMA: four months our sophomore year and eight months our junior year…I was on seven different ships during my year at sea: two container ships, one car carrier, three training ships, and a Navy warship. Because of this, we are required to overload on credits while we are on campus. I do not believe I ever took less than 18 credits during my time here and would often get somewhere up in the 20s for credit count. Third trimester of senior year I was taking 26 credit hours.
The academies are tightly disciplined places. Very. How hard was that to deal with?
To be terribly honest, I wish it had been a bit more disciplined. Kings Point is, for better or worse, the party school of the academies. Our course loads are the heaviest and our attitudes are the saltiest; this all leads to heavy partying on the weekends and a considerably more relaxed rule system. As someone who doesn’t care much for partying and appreciates rules, I was a little disappointed in this part. However, you come to realize it is necessary to stay sane when we have all of the obligations and work that we do. Work hard, play hard…That being said, we still are in a regiment and have uniforms and follow the rules and standards that are expected of a federal service academy. We just do not wake up at 5 a.m. every week to practice marching, or have NCOs walking around campus calling us out for things, like our friends at the other academies.
The academies have a reputation for making the first year pretty grim, but it looked like you got to do some fun and interesting things almost from the beginning. Tell us about it.
To be completely honest, plebe year (freshman year) was by far my favorite year. While it was the worst with all of the special regulations and rules set forth for plebes, it was the best because of the people who made up our training class, Class of 2015. The Class of 2015 was comprised of some of the most incredible, innate leaders I have ever encountered. They redefined the meaning of leadership to me and made my class believe that we were capable of changing the world…At Kings Point you should never expect to be told that you are “the best that the nation has to offer” or the “best and brightest,” but you will be expected to step up and take charge and be a leader even when you yourself are completely lost. They made this look so easy, fun, and inspiring, I found myself looking back to their example when I assumed command as a first classman (senior) and I am sure I will continue to pull from their examples throughout my time in the Navy and the rest of my life.
Tell us a little about your shipboard experiences.
After plebe year, when I went to sea I was able to go to Germany, Belgium, England, Japan, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and various ports on both the west and east coasts of the continental United States…I was able to spend over 70 days on a destroyer, the USS Benfold DDG-65, forward-deployed to Japan, which was engaged in war games at the time…We sank a ship (on purpose) fired off every missile and gun on the ship, and partook in a joint exercise with all components of the Seventh Fleet. I had the opportunity to conn (be the person in charge of calling the shots for all navigational aspects) during an UNREP with the USNS Rappahannock (UNREP being an underway replenishment. That is when two vessels are a few hundred feet off of one another, steering the same course, and transferring fuel, cargo, personnel, etc.). While conning, I was responsible for the safe navigation of a multi-million-dollar warship, and the 200- something sailors aboard it. One wrong call or a call two minutes too late could have ended in disaster and a serious oil spill. A lot of responsibility for a 20-year-old, but also an incredible experience. One of my favorite memories was standing on the bridge wing on the USS Benfold conning as we acted as plane guard–helped the jet pilots land safely on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan by using the lights on our mast to help guide them on the correct course for final approach. Ahead of me was a gorgeous 100k-ton aircraft carrier, above me were F-18s passing low enough to give me goosebumps, behind me was a breathtakingly vibrant sunset, the likes that can only be seen in the middle of the ocean, and beneath me was a kaleidoscope of color as we plowed through clouds of bio-luminescent plankton. I have never felt so alive…Some of the most memorable moments were the quiet stolen moments at four in the morning on the bridge wing of one of my commercial vessels during morning bridge watch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, feeling the cold ocean air whip my hair around my face as I sipped on a latte (yes, my ship had a latte machine, and yes, I became an expert barista) and gazed at the galaxy in the clear sky, watching shooting star after shooting star fly by.
What sort of extracurricular activities did you engage in?
Yikes, that’s a long list. [Editor’s note: for brevity’s sake we are omitting an impressive alphabet soup of leadership positions that could be described as in the line of duty.] I am incapable of sitting still and I detest being bored…During my plebe year I started and ran the only community service club on campus, Acta Non Verba Club, which led to me being able to create a regimental position for a community service liaison, the Regimental Community Service Officer. It may not sound glamorous, but it meant everything to me…I was in Marine Ops (kind of like USMC ROTC), US Navy League, Aviation Club, Moral Science Society, Carnegie Counsel, Christian Fellowship Club, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Club, I was the Service and Community department head for the student activities board, I had a short stints on the crew team and started a fast pitch softball team which, unfortunately, did not last long due to how few females there are at the academy…I was involved in more than that but that’s all that I can remember at the moment.
What was the physical training like?
I am unfortunately not as athletic as I would like to be. INDOC (indoctrination, a.k.a. our boot camp) was not too bad, but I would be lying if I said I excelled at the physical portion of it. Plebe year our punishments always took the form of physical training, i.e. push-ups wall-sits, rifle PT, etc., and we got punished a lot. However, after plebe year the only physical training we really have are the PRTs: Physical Readiness Tests comprised of push-ups, sit-ups, and a timed mile-and-a-half run. We take them three times a year to ensure that we are maintaining Navy fitness standards. Beyond the PRTs you are pretty much expected to work out on your own time. Some people do and some people do not.
What sort of summer training did you do?
We do not have the same summer training as the other academies due to our sea year…Our training is very hands-on immersive. We do spend a minimum of two weeks at an internship of our choosing, the only requirement being that it is either maritime or military-related in some way. That being said, I have a friend who chose to do his at a meat packing factory; do not ask me how or why. I did mine with Helicopter Combat Squadron 22 (HSC-22) in Norfolk, Virginia.
Did your sister’s Naval Academy experience help, or are the two institutions too dissimilar for that?
In some ways it helped, but for the most part the academies are too dissimilar for anything she told me to be too helpful. But, as I mentioned, she’s the reason I went to USMMA, so I guess her experiences at USNA did help me.
You achieved fame on TV and video. Would you be able to share those clips?
Definitely! Really neat experiences. I hope I did not sound too unintelligent or star-struck on the air.
I’m under the impression that naval aviation was your first choice. How is it decided what, exactly, people will do after graduation?
Since there are so many options available, you really have to know what you want to do and pursue it. No one is there holding your hand telling you what steps to take or what boxes to check; you have to learn by asking other people who got what you wanted in previous classes. For me that meant having a robust resume, taking the ASTB (Aviation Selection Test Battery, a.k.a. the Navy flight test) and completing the application, submitting letters of recommendation, and being interviewed by the officers from Naval Science. If what you want has limited slots, you need to make yourself stand out. The decision for who gets Navy spots is determined by “Big Navy” as we call it. Meaning, some person in D.C. reviews our resumes and decides. However, I heard that our Naval Science department has a lot of say…For those sailing commercially, they pretty much just submit resumes to different shipping companies or shipyards like a normal job and hope they get a call back, an interview, and a job.
What is the length of your service obligation?
Those who go active duty have an obligation of five years. Those going reserves have a commitment of eight years. I have to pay the Navy back for time spent in flight school on top of my normal obligation, so I owe them six years at least, but I plan on being career Navy.
What will your duties be while you wait for your training to begin in Pensacola?
I am currently stationed at USMMA while I wait to begin flight school in Pensacola in November. Until then I will be pretty much just doing paperwork, helping rewrite the Naval Science curriculum, and helping the officers prepare and teach classes.
Let me guess: You want to fly fighters?
Your sister, whom I also had the honor of knowing when she was in high school, is now a Marine Corps aviator. The Navy and Marines are noted for giving each other a hard time. Are you two going to do that? Are you already doing that?
We have been giving each other a hard time since we were babies. But we both have an incredible amount of respect for one another and I honestly could not be more proud of Laura. I have so much respect for the Marines, you will never hear me bashing them, besides the occasional crayon joke. She is the same way: she respects my decision and my branch and she never fails to tell me how proud of me she is…I would still love and support her even if she went Army or, God forbid, Coast Guard.
Your dad was in the Air Force. What are you folks going to talk about at family get-togethers?
Same stuff they always talk about: politics, sports, which branch is better, whether it is more important to have a golf course or a landing strip on a base. You know the drill.
One last question: I wrote a letter of recommendation when you applied for the Academy, and I remember saying that you performed at a high level even when the entire class was tired and hungry, and that you were civil toward people who tested your patience. I thought these were important attributes for someone in your intended walk of life. Was I right?
Definitely. That was so important at school and at sea. When you are at sea there will be days where half the crew goes two to four days without any decent sleep or a chance to sit down and have a complete meal…You have to be very careful not to rub them the wrong way during these times or the situation can deteriorate rapidly. And at school, shucks, that’s how it is 24/7. Everyone is always tired, hungry, and testing one another’s patience. I can honestly say I was not as prepared for that as I thought that I was, but you learn to laugh things off, and choose to bond over how terrible Delano (our chow hall) is instead of how terrible everyone’s mood is after a morning full of worthless meetings after a pointless inspection and a weekend that was taken from you for “regimental activities” and a night spent cramming for a test that you had next period…If we can jokingly complain about how terrible the food is, or how incompetent certain people in the administration are, then we can bond over those bad experiences instead of making bad situations worse by turning on one another.
Well, we’d better wrap this up. I’m impressed by all the ground–and ocean–you’ve covered since high school. Thank you for your time and effort, and for your service.
You’re quite welcome!
The Coaching Educator has the highest regard for all of the dedicated, resourceful men and women serving in our armed forces and merchant fleet. For more information on how we can help you pursue the honor and opportunities associated with an academy appointment or ROTC scholarship, book an appointment with us today.
Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.