The mission of the Naval Academy has not changed since Col. James P. McDonough graduated 27 years ago.
McDonough, who goes by J.P., is now one of the people in charge of fulfilling it as the 89th commandant of the Brigade of Midshipmen.
Already, McDonough has worked with the plebes and the midshipmen who were at the academy over the summer. The class of 2025 is excited and physically ready for the academy’s challenges, and he’s enjoyed working with them so far.
Soon, he’ll be working with more midshipmen as the brigade reforms.
The commandant’s leadership style is heavily influenced by being a father of four boys, he said. One son is a 2nd lieutenant in the Marines, another will be a junior at Texas A&M where he is a member of the Marine ROTC.
His other two sons, 16 and 12, will attend school in the Annapolis area.
As a father, he knows not all decisions he makes will be greeted with enthusiasm from the midshipmen, but he wants them to know that there are reasons behind each one he makes.
“Just like my own kids, I’m going to hold you accountable because I love you,” he said.
His leadership style will focus on teaching the midshipmen professionalism and building good characters. While he is preparing the midshipmen for naval service, he will draw on some of his Marine Corps training, especially the focus on discipline. McDonough is the third Marine to be selected as commandant at the academy.
Each commandant brings their own experience to the academy and faces different challenges. For Rear Adm. Thomas R. Buchanan, McDonough’s predecessor, it was leading the brigade during COVID-19, as well as through the social justice movement as a result of the police killing of George Floyd.
One of the challenges of the COVID-19 years at the academy was communicating with a brigade spread out around the country or in their rooms. Buchanan turned to social media to try to address it. While McDonough will keep the accounts active, he is less of a social media person, he said. No one should expect a USNA commandant TikTok account.
He prefers to have conversations in person. As commandant, he knows some of those conversations will be necessary but uncomfortable. He plans to continue to discuss social justice, he said.
Midshipmen will be commissioned as officers who will oversee sailors and Marines from all different backgrounds. The future officers need to be able to respect everyone and treat them with dignity, he said.
The commandant joined the academy as leadership in the military shifted under a new president. One focus from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is sexual assault in the armed forces, and that is another difficult conversation McDonough knows midshipmen need to have.
There needs to be education and prevention, including about alcohol use, but there also needs to be enforcement. He knows there is a near zero chance that sexual assault will be stopped completely, so when it does happen, the party responsible needs to be held accountable, he said.
“As a father, those are the sort of things that [you] truly get angry about when you read some of these investigations,” McDonough said.
McDonough will not have the same COVID-19 challenges. The brigade is already 98% vaccinated against the disease, and come September, all members of the military, including midshipmen, will need to be vaccinated.
Besides masks, which must currently be worn inside because the Naval Academy is in an area of substantial COVID-19 transmission, life on the Yard will be as normal as possible, he said. There will be sports, and an Army-Navy football game.
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There will be Ring Dances and Herndon Climbs. There will be two Ring Dances during the academic year, making up for the canceled one last year. For McDonough, the Ring Dance is particularly meaningful as it’s where he and his wife became a serious couple.
And the class of 2023 will get to climb Herndon as midshipmen 2nd class.
McDonough has already thrown down the gauntlet for the class of 2023 when it comes to climbing the greased obelisk. They are not plebes, McDonough said, so there is extra incentive for setting the record.
While the class might not be as excited about climbing it now, in 30 years, they might have regretted not having the chance to climb. Herndon and the Ring Dance are just some of the examples of the traditions that define the academy, McDonough said.
They are also part of the fun that midshipmen get to experience.
McDonough gets to experience some fun, as well. As commandant, he is looking forward to reuniting the brigade and helping them become leaders of character.
He is also looking forward to being on the sidelines of the Army-Navy football game.
This story has been updated to accurately reflect when Col. James P. McDonough graduated. It was 27 years ago.