A Perfect Form One

By Commander Jim Stavridis, U.S. Navy

Their faces will witness countless sunsets on the deep, rolling sea; they will take the watch on a destroyer’s bridge a thousand times and more, searching the distant horizon for barely seen contacts; they will lead companies of Marines down dusty streets into danger and adventure; they will dive nuclear submarines under the polar ice and fly the fastest jet aircraft to the highest places in the sky. For much of their lives, those faces will be turned away from their homes as they stand watch in the long, hard service of their country, defending the hope and the promise that defines the United States.

In every issue of Shipmate , the Naval Academy’s alumni magazine, each class has a monthly column full of news and photographs of the graduates. Start at the back, with the youngest and newest graduates. Their faces stand out in their youth and energy, unlined and beautiful, bursting with promise. Living their lives so close to the flame, they are sure they are indestructible, with countless options ahead and so little in the way of history dragging behind. They are, in the words of former Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe, as full of light as the sun, as full of grace as angels.

Turn the pages.

The years flip by, and the faces age. Wives and husbands and children appear. First deployments are completed, and airmanship and seamanship are mastered; these are the building years of service as a junior officer. The first faint lines can just be seen on those faces, beginning around the eyes that have seen so many sunsets at sea, so many hot summer days in the deserts of Arabia, so many long patrols over the choppy Adriatic. The faces deepen and begin to develop new expressions: gravity, seriousness, maturity. The burden of the years begins to show.

Turn the pages yet again.

Responsibility, accountability, command—important things that again change the faces in subtle ways. Gray appears at the temples, hairlines recede, and lines deepen. The cares and concerns of a demanding life, much of it spent at sea, begin to make themselves felt in those faces. Sons and daughters grow, and soon the first child of a classmate is entering as a plebe at Annapolis. There are commanders and colonels, flag and general officers—some faces are moving along at higher and higher speed, headed toward yet more demanding tasks.

Turn more pages and suddenly the burdens begin to change and lift: retirements, second careers, transitions. Soon the first grandchild enters the Naval Academy, a distant, blurry repetition of the one that walked into the Academy so many years ago. Travel and reunions, Florida condos and tennis matches, sailboats and golf villas—the rewards of a life well led appear on those pages. The faces relax and smile, even as the accumulation of life's lines continues to build on faces increasingly full of character and experience.

The last pages.

Fewer faces now. Reports of illness, condolences and obituaries, memorials and bequests, the graceful conclusions of orderly lives are documented; and then abruptly the faces stop—the final watch stood, the last log signed.

There is a stately rhythm to it all. Each stage has a different feel to it, a different defining quality that is caught in the faces of the men and women living it.

What does it all mean, this parade of changing faces?

Caught in the pages of Shipmate, the faces of the Naval Academy have a meaning far larger than the institution itself. The faces show what is really important in life: families, friendships and humor, service to a higher ideal, the idea of continuity, and—above all—the naval service itself.

First, those faces clearly demonstrate that families are the heart of the matter. Each young face comes to the Academy from a family that supported and cared for them. And as these young men and women leave Annapolis and pass through the building years, they gather their own new families about them. The career they have chosen is hard on those families, yet many children of graduates pay their parents the ultimate compliment when the time comes to choose their life's work and say, yes, I too will serve—often with the determination to attend the Academy themselves.

That repetition of the cycle, the long steady sweep of an endless Form One, is fundamental to the Naval Academy. And, more important, it is at the heart of the Naval Academy's value to this country and the naval service. The next generation must choose freely to come and serve and to be part of that long formation of faces—and only families, with their love and support, can encourage and achieve that particular progression of face after face.

Second, those faces demonstrate that friendship and humor matter deeply. Bonds are built at the Academy, and the strength of those ties are shown on page after page, on face after face. The laughing ensigns and second lieutenants posing in the sunny hours after graduation become the smiling captains and colonels 25 years later, and the same friendships and humor will hold the naval service together from the corridors of the Pentagon and to the piers of Port-au-Prince and the runways of Mogadishu.

Third, the faces show that the truest calling is service to a higher good. Like the faces in Memorial Hall at the Academy, these are the faces of good men and women who often have paid a high price for the right to serve. Some faces disappear early indeed, lost in combat, fallen in the accidents of flight, or swept over the side of a ship riding harshly in a cruel sea. Those are the faces of young men and women who will never find their way to the final pages of Shipmate, lost hearts swept away from the rest of us by the dangers of the lives they chose. But those faces never are truly lost if they are preserved and remembered by their comrades and friends. They are forever a part of all that the faces represent, a part that is remembered in the memorials and monuments that are such a quietly important and powerful part of the Naval Academy grounds.

Fourth, those faces tell us that there is a comforting continuity to life. In those faces that emerge from the Naval Academy, year after year, it becomes clear that each generation will indeed take its stand and face great issues; then surrender its place and move on. As said in Ecclesiastes, "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever." So it is with the naval service and the long Form One.

We all learn that no one among us is indispensable, that there will be both victories and defeats, promotions won and lost, choice assignments gained and missed—all vitally important at the moment. But in the end, the progression of faces shows that the world moves on, effortlessly and seamlessly, catching up in its movements the best each of us has to offer, hopefully taking what is good and true and passing some sweet part of it all along to the next generation. There is high comfort in all of that, in the long steady sweep of face after face, generation following generation, like ships in the wake of a guide, steaming smoothly toward a distant horizon.

Finally, that long parade of faces helps to show that what is important is not the precise nature of service, or lists of accomplishments, or final ranks attained. What matters is the service itself, both the act of service and the privilege of performing it in the naval service. Knowing this helps us to take ourselves less seriously.

Sooner or later, everyone is denied something that they think is theirs by right—a perfect assignment, an early promotion, screening for command, selection for war college. But everyone, even the most successful admirals and generals, eventually will arrive at the point where the Navy or Marine Corps says, enough, you have served well and long but now you are done. Understanding the meaning of the long progression of faces can make that moment understandable, if not entirely pleasant. It leads to acceptance and to satisfaction with a job well done and a career well led. In a word, that parade of faces provides perspective.

Graduates of the Naval Academy will have their turn to move through the pages of Shipmate. Some will leave the service early to pursue other challenges; some will die young on distant missions; some will command great fleets and forces; and some will have a single command or none at all. Yet for each, the key is balance and perspective, an enjoyment of the moment, a love of friends and families, and an abiding vision of service to a higher ideal.

The faces of the Naval Academy form a family. They are all part of the long formation. They are not all happy in the same ways, nor do they serve in the same ways, but there are two things that each can share. First, all serve—in different ways, for different durations, with different results—but all serve. Second, and more important, the choice to be happy—to find satisfaction with service—lies within each of them. It is the key to everything. Satisfaction with service—a simple and timeless idea—is the most important lesson of the perfect Form One. It is the most fundamental meaning of that long progression of lives and adventures that is composed of the faces of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Commander Stavridis is the commanding officer of the USS Barry (DDG-52).


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