From how they've handled the government shutdown, you would have to question whether America's three major service academies really are part of the same Department of Defense, all reporting to the Pentagon.
Consider this, focusing first on athletics:
Air Force had to wait until after receiving a $230,000 gift from USAA, making certain its expenses would not be related to the government, before learning the AFA-Navy football game could go on as scheduled last Saturday at Annapolis, Md. Yet, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson didn't make the trip, and neither did athletic director Hans Mueh, team trainers, cheerleaders or other support personnel. Meanwhile, Air Force's other leaders went into silence, including football coach Troy Calhoun except for his comments after the 28-10 loss at Navy.
Aside from football, Air Force called off a home hockey exhibition Monday night against the University of New Brunswick and decreed that no other events would take place. As Johnson put it in a media appearance last week, "We are suspended in all of our other sports activities."
Meanwhile, life was different last weekend for teams representing West Point and Annapolis.
Army's rifle team competed in a scheduled match against the University of Memphis — on the road at Memphis. Meanwhile, Army teams hosted men's and women's tennis tournaments including three other schools, played a women's soccer game in Baltimore, participated in a golf tournament, and won a home volleyball match. Oh, and the Army Prep football team won a home game against Bridgton Academy.
Navy cadets went about their usual business as well, with events in rowing (at Norfolk, Va.), cross country, rifle, women's soccer and volleyball. And through it all, into this week, while Mueh was claiming he couldn't talk to reporters, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk was easily accessible, quoted almost daily in the Baltimore/Washington media.
That's just athletics, but it's the avenue by which all three academies deal most with the public. Thus, it's the most visible aspect from the outside looking in. And from this view, it appears Air Force's standard procedure is to retreat into its cocoon, while Army and Navy take the opposite approach.
Then there's the academic side. Navy and Air Force revealed that about 20 percent of their classes had to be canceled in the shutdown's first week because of civilian instructors not being available, and nobody capable of replacing them. Army didn't admit to such problems, but one can assume certain specialized classes might have been affected there as well. The return of more civilian workers this week should alleviate that issue for now, though many still are furloughed and priorities are unclear.
So what's the takeaway here? Several points:
• The lack of coordination among the academies is stunning. Especially given the fact that Lt. Gen. Johnson here and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen at West Point are both in their first months as superintendents, you'd have thought that the Pentagon would make sure all three were on the same page, following similar guidelines and sharing similar strategies as well as successes and stumbles. That's clearly not happening.
• Serious questions certainly must be asked, and studies (a nice word for investigations) undertaken, of the finances and operations in all three academies' athletic departments. It makes no sense that Army sends a rifle team to Memphis and Navy's rowers go to Norfolk, yet Air Force can't host a hockey exhibition against an opponent already here to play other games. It also makes no sense when one academy chooses to stonewall the media and public, while the others don't.
• Given the troubling impact of even a short-term shutdown on academics, with the potential of affecting accreditations and even timely graduation for cadets, Lt. Gen. Johnson faces more pressure than ever. As a former Rhodes Scholar herself, there's no doubt her commitment to academics is resolute. But her job now is far more than continuing and methodically reshaping the AFA mission — she must come up with new ideas and directions for Air Force (if not Army and Navy as well) to follow in similar future situations that seem inevitable now.
"This is new ground for our country and for us," Johnson said last week.
So let's make sure our academies are united, not strangers.