Graduating Into War

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The tossed hats of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy signal their owners' advancement, from school to the real world, be it peace or war.

The U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 2002 was just beginning its senior year on September 11, 2001. Thirty-three of its 965 members this week will be publishing In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service from America’s Longest War, to remind the nation what it was like to graduate into war — the first class to do so since Vietnam. They have spent a decade at war at sea, on land (162 Marines were in the class of ‘02) and the air.

Battleland conducted an email chat with two of the book’s editors — classmates John Ennis, a Navy lieutenant, turned Pentagon speechwriter, turned IBM account executive, and Graham Plaster, who is now wrapping up his Navy career, where he served as a surface warfare officer and a foreign area officer supporting UN peacekeeping operations in the Middle East.

Why did USNA ’02 decide to write this book?

JE: We wrote the book to inspire, educate, and connect to a civilian citizenry that may not have affiliations with the military.

To bridge the divide between civilians and those in uniform, we put together series of intimate personal stories of courage – vignettes anyone can gleam value from.

As seniors in college when the Twin Towers fell, we were uniquely positioned at a historic turning point – politically, economically, militarily – and we felt the need to share the experiences that reflect a generation of 2.5 million American veterans serving around the world for a decade of war.


 Whose idea was it?

 JE: Joshua Welle envisioned the book while serving in Afghanistan in 2009.

As Class President he was hearing the details of friends in harm’s way and their stories needed to be told. Executing that vision was a team effort.

The heavy lifting was done by co-editors John Ennis, Katherine Kranz, and Graham Plaster. Marketing efforts were led by Elizabeth Kreft, Anita Brenner, and Patrick McConnell.

There are another 30 co-authors who wrote and helped during the three year process. Over 100 other members of the Class of 2002 supported the book as well.

 Who do you want to read this book? Why?


JE: As Tom Brokaw has already said, this book is a “must read for all Americans.”

We think that it is a book that can be read by young and old alike, military and civilians. The stories are short and inspirational, providing insight from up and coming military leaders.

They would make great leadership case studies for any group working through particular issues. The broader theme goes beyond military service to command, citizenship and government.

The veterans of the Long War will be the reservoir of excellence leading our country in the decades ahead.

The reader will derive pride by reading the stories in this book – they reflect the very best proof that America remains exceptional.

And by honoring veterans in the book, we also want to cultivate a national dialogue surrounding the enduring qualities that make America great. These qualities – cherished, defended and exemplified by our veterans, are worth discussing as we continue to grapple with strategic decisions for America.

This is why the book is not-for-profit. All author proceeds go to a trust to support veteran organizations.

Tell us a little about the book. 

JE: The book is structured thematically. Only a small portion is about the Naval Academy so that readers understand the experience in Annapolis. An introduction, Four Years by the Bay, is the glue the allowed us to write with a common voice.

The book quickly shifts to a spectrum of stories, moments of leadership and courage in the most diverse situations.

Leadership Laboratory: How is classroom education different than practical application?…read as a junior officer redefines the definition of honor in the Fleet.

Courage Under Fire: Feel the heat of the moment and pressure of combat…a Marine CASEVAC pilot.

Beyond Battlefield Bullets: Soft Power at work, partnering with Iraqis, Afghans, and NATO to advance democratic ideals.

Teamwork, Sacrifice, and Integrity: There are several stories of sacrifice that will make you cringe and cry….a mother opens the door to a white uniform, who explains that her son was killed in a helicopter crash.

The Next Great Generation: When the uniform comes off what do these young people do?…they start companies, serve the nation, and give back.

A story of the first gay military officer to marry after DADT repeal is inspirational. National leaders contribute throughout: David Gergen at Harvard, ADM Sam Locklear and General John Allen reflect on their time as commandants, and ADM Mike Mullen puts it all in perspective through the epilogue.

Some folks tend to think of their 20s as a carefree decade in their lives…yours was not. Would you have had it any other way?

 JE: This is a question that is best answered by reading the book. The answer is mostly no, but there are shadows in our stories.

Not everything is black and white. When we applied to the Naval Academy, we were attracted to the crisp distinctions between navy blue and white, good and evil, satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

Following graduation, during our 20s, we continued down the “road less traveled” – we had some good times and bad. Read the book to get an inside glimpse of how we navigated those waters.

Only 1% of Americans are wearing the uniform and fighting the nation’s post-9/11 wars…should this be a concern?

GP: David Gergen answers the question in the foreword of the book, reflecting on conversations with President Ronald Reagan.

As for the group, there is a different opinion on this for every contributor. It is an issue to consider, and in leadership classes at the Naval Academy we discussed the widening culture gap between the military and civilian life.

This is a concern to some people, and simply par for the course if you ask others. The beauty of the “all volunteer force,” however, is that everyone who puts on a uniform does so because they want to – and this makes for a much more effective fighting force. We are so thankful to those who do understand military sacrifice.

How has the military treated you and your family?

 GP: The military has tremendous programs in place to support families, and the close-knit communities that form on far-flung bases are the bedrock of American society.

Supporting families is a high priority to our leaders in the military, which is why failures in the system get so much scrutiny. As with any organization, big or small, federal or private, there will be failures.

But it is through the difficult process of discussing shortcomings in the system of support that we make it better. We have confidence that as we raise issues, leaders from our generation will continue to rise to the challenge of supporting military families in the years to come.


How successful have you and your classmates, and the country, been in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

 GP: Success is a highly-politicized and, at the same time, a highly personal issue. Best idea is to read the book and draw your own conclusions.

There have been many successes and many failures.

The focus of our book is on particular achievements both in the military and beyond, in the face of so many different challenges.

Some say war is too important to be left to the generals…anything you would have done differently from your elders in commanding them?

GP: These wars brought overdue credit to the “strategic corporal” and senior leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan realized the solutions sets were coming from the bottom up. It took time, but they eventually got it.

Some of the book contributors are fortunate to be assuming command, or advising senior military leaders. Their opinions, based on the experiences of the past ten years, may well steer the country in new directions.

Some of our other contributors have entered the private sector and would be happy to engage in their American right to free speech in order to correct things they’ve seen. We support both channels of what we call in the military, “speaking truth to power” because we believe there will be positive change through our generation’s influence.