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Soldier mom: A West Point cadet answers a different call

Paula struggled to maintain her balance in breakfast formation. At West Point Military Academy, cadets must be accounted for at all times, and as a sophomore, she was accustomed to this drill. Dressed in full uniform, shirts tucked in, buckles and shoes shined, backs straight, row upon row of cadets were counted every morning before breakfast. But this morning she didn’t feel well. A nearby parking lot had been re-tarred, and the smell was making her sick. “I think I’m going to faint,” she said, leaning against her friend.

“Oh no, you’re not,” he said, pushing back just enough to help her stand on her own. Paula made herself suck it up and hold on just as an upperclassman walked by. “Johnson, are you okay?” he asked, genuinely concerned. “I’m not really sure,” she managed to answer, but the look on her face spoke volumes. He pulled her out of line, and when she doubled over, convulsing in dry heaves, he sent her to sick call. Walking to the campus clinic, Paula actually felt a little relieved. Maybe I have the flu, she thought. A day of rest would be nice, even if she had to be sick to get it. But Paula didn’t have the flu. Dr. Yavorek, a female civilian doctor, was on duty that morning, and after Paula described her symptoms, Dr. Yavorek got right to the source of her malady. “Is there any chance you could be pregnant?”

“I don’t really think so,” Paula answered, but when the doctor pressed, she thought back a few weeks. “Well, there was this one time …”

A ‘harmless’ camping trip

Paula had met her boyfriend, Brian, early in their freshman year, and the two of them had been dating about nine months. They had even gone so far as to talk about a future together, but they’d decided their relationship would not become sexual. Paula fully intended to wait until she was married, and Brian had concurred.

The two of them had gone on a camping trip over Labor Day weekend. Underclassmen aren’t normally allowed to leave campus, but Labor Day is designated a “B” weekend, which meant they could. “To us it was harmless,” Paula said later. “We’d just go camping and get away—anything to get off West Point grounds.” One thing had led to another though, and now she was sick and getting a pregnancy test. She and Brian had stopped themselves when they realized what was happening. “But what if we didn’t stop soon enough?” she thought as she waited, nerves firing, for Dr. Yavorek’s return with the results.

“Paula?” She spoke softly when she came back, “the test came back positive.”

“What?” Shock made the single word explode out of Paula’s mouth. Then she was quiet for a moment and asked meekly, “Is there any way the test could be wrong?” But it wasn’t wrong, and the news beganto sink in. She took a deep breath and started thinking, what am I going to do?

The ‘weekend option’

As if reading her mind, Dr. Yavorek explained her options. West Point was prepared for cadets in her condition. First, there was the “weekend option.” “We will write you a special pass,” she explained. “We have a list of clinics. You can go, and when you come back, nobody has to know why you went or what you did.”

“No,” Paula said, unwilling to go that route. “Are you sure?” the doctor asked, not pressing, but confirming what she was hearing.m “Yes,” Paula answered, “don’t even give me that list. I could never do that.” “Okay,” the doctor replied. And without further discussion, she wrote a prescription for prenatal vitamins and sent Paula on her way.

Paula walked back to her dorm in a daze. She knew Brian would be in class, as were most students by now. She also knew she wouldn’t be excused from her own classes, but she had to talk to somebody. She looked for her friend Deb, knowing Deb shared her faith and would understand the decision she had just made, but Deb wasn’t in her room. It was now about 8:00 a.m. That means it’s 7:00 at home, Paula thought. Mom and Dad will still be home. So she sought out a phone in the basement of her dorm, away from any listening ears, and dialed the number.

“Paula!” her mother answered, surprised to hear from her daughter at this hour. Paula began to explain how she hadn’t been feeling well lately. “I got sick in formation this morning … and I was sent to sick call,” she went on, not quite sure how she was going to break this news. “And they did a pregnancy test,” she finally managed to blurt out. There was silence for a moment. Then she heard her mother sigh. “Oh, Paula Beth.” Another pause. “Was it positive?”

“Yes,” Paula finally broke down. “But Mom, I didn’t do anything. It was only one time,” she cried. And cried and cried and cried. “Are you okay?” her mother finally asked. No scolding. No yelling. “Yes, Mom, I’m okay.” Still in tears, Paula found some relief from talking to her mother.

Cadet mom

But she also knew she had to get herself to class. A soldier does what a soldier has to do. She went on to class that day—and finished her fall semester with the same disciplined approach. No one pressured her to take the weekend option, but it was clear she could either remain pregnant or remain at West Point. She could not do both. Fortunately, she managed to fit into her uniform throughout the semester, though she was granted; permission to wear tennis shoes instead of the regulation dress shoes. She received prenatal care, sometimes at the clinic on campus, sometimes at the Army hospital across town. The head physician at the clinic, though, couldn’t fathom why she had made the choice she did. “I think you’re making a stupid decision,” he said to her at one point. “You understand, you’re throwing your career away.”

One of the hardest tasks was telling her sisters. The oldest of four daughters born to Lutheran schoolteachers, Paula had grown up with the truths and morals of the Christian faith. Moreover, she had embraced them herself and fully intended to live by them. She had served as a youth leader and Sunday school teacher in her church, and as an older sister, felt responsible for setting an example. Over Thanksgiving break, she broke the news, explaining that she would come home for Christmas and stay home, at least for several months. She took a medical leave from the Army, found a part-time job and enrolled in a nearby university.

Choosing to carry her pregnancy to term, Paula had three options: (1) She could place the baby for adoption and resume her career at West Point, graduating one semester behind her peers; (2) a family member could temporarily adopt the child until she graduated, at which point custody would revert to her; or (3) she could withdraw from West Point.

Brian proposed, and together the two of them weighed each option. Brian opposed permanent adoption, and Paula felt the temporary adoption route was too disruptive for a child. That left her with option 3. “It was a tough pill to swallow,” Paula reflected later, but swallow it she did. The decision made, they set a date for their wedding after Brian’s graduation, at which point their child would be two.

All went according to plan for another year. In late May, Paula gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom they named Garrett, and Brian flew in for his birth. In August, Paula returned to West Point, with Garrett (who was nursing), to process her withdrawal. She was granted an honorable discharge, and post-military life settled into an exacting rhythm of school, work and being a mom. Her parents and sisters helped, but the primary responsibility for Garrett’s care remained hers. Occasionally, when she couldn’t arrange for a sitter, she packed him into his stroller and the two of them attended class together. “If he cried, I would take him out,” she said, “What else was I going to do?”

Reflections without regrets

Two years after Garrett was born, Paula completed a B.S. in Mathematics and accepted an offer to teach at a local high school. She says she grew up in a hurry, and even though Brian broke off their engagement, she has no regrets. People largely supported her. “It was like a two-stage reaction,” she explained. “First there was the disappointment over my pregnancy, but then, right away, support for having subsequently made the right choice.” A West Point classmate later told her, “I’m glad it was you and not me. I know what I would have done, and I would have hated myself for it.” Another woman commended her this way: “I didn’t make the same choice you did when I was younger,” she confided sadly, “and I wish I had.”

Paula had long held military service in high esteem. Her appointment to West Point was, for her, an honor and a teenager’s dream come true. But on an otherwise routine fall morning, a different assignment arrived. Her West Point dream aborted, she answered the call to protect the one life of which she’d been appointed sole guardian.

Garrett? He’s eight now and is a happy, well-loved second grader at the same Lutheran school from which Paula graduated 15 years ago. He loves his mom very, very much.


SIDEBAR: Doing what’s right at our U.S. military academies?

By Thomas A. Szyszkiewic

Discipline. Honor. The nation’s service academies try to inculcate a sense of doing what is right into the daily lives of their students. After all, they are molding them to become the guardians of our nation. Each one has an honor code. West Point’s is simple and straightforward: “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.” The Air Force Academy adds an oath: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.” The Coast Guard and Navy also have honor concepts similar to these codes.

But what about the honor of a cadet or midshipman who impregnates or becomes pregnant while he or she is at an academy? That’s a question many people are not willing to look at. Indeed, while researching this story, the academies seemed reluctant to divulge even the most basic information about their policies and procedures.

Policy positions

Back in 1995, Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, raised the issue with the Naval Academy. Originally, a female midshipman who became pregnant or a male who impregnated a female was dismissed from the Academy. Then a panel advised the Navy that the policy be changed to read that any woman who becomes pregnant and does not terminate the pregnancy within 30 days should be dismissed. According to Donnelly, the proposal was met with an outcry from both National Right to Life and NARAL, saying it would only encourage and promote abortions. (Donnelly’s article did not provide any reference for the information on NARAL. It’s difficult to believe that at any time in its history, NARAL didn’t meet an abortion it didn’t like.)

Instead, the Navy decided on a policy that still stands today. According to the Naval Academy’s policy manual, “Any midshipman who becomes pregnant, causes the pregnancy of another, or incurs the obligations of parenthood, must report the condition to their Chain of Command. Midshipmen who become pregnant and choose not to resign will be allowed to go on a leave of absence of no more than one year. Midshipmen who are pregnant or have incurred the obligations of parenthood and who fail to resign or request a leave of absence will be separated.”

The Coast Guard’s is similar: “A cadet may not have any maternal or paternal obligation or responsibility at the time of appointment nor while enrolled as a cadet. Pregnancy past fourteen weeks will be considered an obligation and will be applicable to both prospective parents. A cadet who incurs a maternal or paternal obligation may resign, be dis-enrolled, or may apply for a hardship resignation to return upon resolution of parental responsibilities.”

The Army is more thorough—six pages thorough, to be exact—but there is no penalty attached for what is obviously engaging in activity that is forbidden under military rules. West Point states, “Pregnancy is a medical condition and, of itself, does not constitute a conduct violation…” Further on it states, “…if the father is a cadet, she (the mother) should encourage him to arrange for counseling, particularly since he is subject to separation if he has legal responsibility for a child.”

Repeated calls to the Air Force Academy for its policies were not returned. Doing what’s right at our U.S. military academies?

That phrase about the obligation of parenthood is a recurring theme in U.S. service academy regulations, and it’s something the academies do not want their students to have for obvious reasons. Single parenthood distracts a person from other responsibilities like academics, and being pregnant isn’t exactly compatible with the rigorous physical demands that academy training requires.

In her 1995 article, Donnelly raised an important issue that is still relevant today: the honor code. She wrote, “Implied pressure to ‘divest’ oneself of parental responsibilities discourages marriage and family formation—something that used to be considered right and honorable in a relationship between a man, a woman and their child. In essence, it suggests that an Academy education is more important than one’s own child.” And that pressure is real, according to Sylvia Dorham, a voiceover artist who attended the Naval Academy for two years. Pregnancy, she said, quite often leads to abortion, “because to remain pregnant is to be stigmatized, leave the Academy, and ‘ruin your career.’” “When I was there, they were not allowed to directly refer for abortion,” Dorham added, “but according to a girl I knew, the [physician] looked at her positive test, opened the phonebook in the exam room to A and left the room.”

Close quarters easy access = ?

Another issue is the close proximity in which young men and women live and work with each other. Bancroft Hall is the sole dormitory at the Naval Academy and seems to have a reputation. The entire student body is divided into mixed-sex companies and the companies are grouped together in the dorm to help promote “unit cohesion,” according to Judy Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Academy, though men and women are segregated in separate rooms.

But, says Dorham, “Anyone who has lived in a co-ed dorm knows it is virtually impossible to maintain your virtue when you are living literally on each other’s doorsteps.” “Add in hormones, overuse of alcohol, and the premium on physical fitness at service academies, and it adds up to a perfect storm of fornication and assault,” she added.

Official Navy policy, of course, precludes this kind of behavior. “Sexual activity is prohibited in the dormitory and on Naval Academy property,” spokeswoman Campbell wrote in an e-mail, but the “sexual activity of midshipmen off-campus is a personal matter. Any violations of Naval Academy policy is [sic] considered a serious offense and may result in separation.”

Yet according to Dorham, “Token efforts are in place to ‘stem the tide’ of sexual misconduct. Sex in ‘the Hall’ (Bancroft) is a major infraction punishable by expulsion, but frankly, it stops no one.” She said her roommate “regularly brought her boyfriend to our room, and they made free use of it, even when I was there.”

Abortion isn’t mentioned in any of the regulations. But it is a clear option and even, perhaps, an expectation.

Military academy policies state that a “three-day pass is authorized, after local counseling has been completed, normally over the course of a weekend, in order to afford the opportunity to consult with family, clergy, doctors or others who may assist in making an informed and well-considered decision to request a medical leave or resign.” This is the so-called “weekend option,” allowing a female cadet to easily make “an informed and well-considered decision” to have her preborn child killed.

“It’s a crazy spiral…a tail-biting serpent,” Dorham commented. “Close quarters plus easy access to contraceptives equals lots of sexual activity, but pregnancy is rewarded by a ‘spoiled career.’ There is a huge stigma against pregnancy…and abortion is encouraged by the military medical establishment.”

Thomas Szyszkiewicz is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.

Editor’s note: Sylvia Dorham left the Naval Academy in the 1990s. However, her words still ring true. A 2004 master’s thesis by a Naval Postgraduate School student on moral development at the Academy spoke to a similar subculture in Bancroft Hall…where midshipmen admit to being confused by the rules of conduct and cutting corners to get by.Contraceptive use is definitely encouraged. Our writers found that female cadets and midshipmen were counseled about “hygiene while out in the field.” Itwas recommended that they use contraception to stop or regulate their periods.According to a Department of Defense report from 2005, one out of every seven female students attending the nation’s military academies has been sexually assaulted since becoming a cadet or midshipman. Among the women surveyed across the three academies, 262 students reported 302 incidents of sexual assault, including 94 instances of alleged rape. Defense officials said theywere particularly concerned about the widespread cynicism students revealed toward the honor code. A substantial number of students at all three schools reported that their classmates will break academy rules and even the honor code if they know they won’t get caught.At the end of 2008, the same survey listed only 34 reported sexual assaultsin the previous school year. However, it’s estimated that number represents only10 percent of the actual assaults. Officials say they want to do something about the low reporting rate and encourage victims to speak up. One presumes that they want to do something about the culture on campus, too.

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About the author

Terrell Clemmons

Terrell Clemmons is a full-time wife and mother of three, and a part-time freelance writer from Indianapolis. She also writes for Salvo and The Lookout magazines. She can be reached at www.TerrellClemmons.com.