For military veterans, the term “mustang” transcends the longstanding, traditional boundaries from chevrons and hash marks to bars, oak leaves, eagles and in some cases, stars.
The majority of veterans, who serve on active duty throughout our armed forces, do so as enlisted personnel for an established period of time. For those who choose not to continue their service upon the completion of their initial active duty commitment, they are discharged back to the civilian world from which they emerged.
Then there are those few who journey with the atypical herd of the mustang.
These are the enlisted men and women who stood out among their peers during their initial enlistment and who have applied and have been selected to continue their service moving from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps.
The 2013 Mount Carmel Area graduate and U.S. Navy veteran, Tom Stief, not only stood out during his three year tenure in the fleet, but thrived. To trace his naval roots, you don’t have to look very far. His dad, Bill Stief, is a retired gunner’s mate whose first commander-in-chief was Ronald Reagan.
Ironically, Tom was born into the Navy reporting in at the hospital at Yokota Air Force Base in Japan and as a youngster cruised the world with his younger sister, Ashley, and mother, Barbara, following Bill’s naval career. Barbara Stief, an Ashland native and a seasoned Navy wife, who along with her husband, didn’t necessarily want their oldest and only son anchored in dad’s deep naval footsteps.
Fate, irony and familiarity have an uncanny way of overcoming such parental aspiration.
During Tom’s senior year at Mount Carmel, the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) wasn’t on his radar, and neither was any other ivy halls of academia. Besides, who at the age of 17 is equipped to be completely self-directed in their academic and worldly pursuits?
Upon graduation, his summer was a preordained rendezvous with the Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois — the premier training grounds for the Navy’s enlisted recruits. Not surprisingly, Tom and his inherited naval DNA excelled, and he was meritoriously promoted upon graduation. More success followed when he graduated at the top of his “A” school class and was promoted for the second time in under three months, putting the young sailor atop of the Navy’s potential leadership radar.
As serendipity would have it, his first command was service on the USS Blue Ridge — the command ship of the Navy’s 7th Fleet — the same vessel his dad sailed with 20 years before when Tom was born. Upon earning his Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist pin in a mere two months and with the recommendation from a vice admiral, Tom was encouraged to apply for admission to USNA.
Since arriving at Annapolis, Tom has been working toward a degree in ocean engineering. He also has earned a spot on the naval academy’s sailing team and has secured his PADI Divemaster certification. Over the past two summers, his exploits on the ocean would have even made Herman Melville envious. Tom sailed in the celebrated Marion to Bermuda Sail Race that navigates strictly by the stars from Massachusetts to Bermuda, that hones one’s sailing acumen like none other, while wearing team shirts designed by his sister, Ashely, a senior graphic design major at Kutztown University.
Earlier this year, Marine Corps officials announced that they want 10 percent of the Corps’ new officers to come from the enlisted ranks. Like Tom Stief, they would bring a wealth of perspective and experience exclusive to those who have worn the stripes and hash marks first. When I reminded this diehard sailor that shipping over to the Corps is always an option of every USNA midshipman, he chuckled.
What isn’t a laughing matter on this Veteran’s Day is that according to the most recent report from the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, less than 30 percent of young American men and women are qualified to enlist in the military, either because of physical, mental or moral issues.
Since the military draft ended in January 1973, finding and retaining willing and qualified recruits has always preoccupied military officials. From time to time, the Pentagon has floated the idea of easing enlistment standards to the chagrin of leaders who wince at the idea of sacrificing quality for quantity. Such a concession would directly impact the military’s ability to perform the very functions our nation expects of its armed forces.
Many polls disclose that Tom’s generation of Americans, the Millennials, are embracing socialism and are the least patriotic generation in history. A glaring lack of pride in the country of their birth will naturally lead some to turn their backs on the very institution that guarantees their freedom and security. Such seditious ideology holds no water with Midshipman Tom Stief or his Annapolis classmates.
Tom will certainly be in good company upon his May 2020 graduation when he joins other mustangs, like current Defense Secretary James Mattis, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who are just two in a long and formidable list of once-enlisted men who reached the pinnacle of military service, becoming generals before taking on the reins of civilian government service.
With men like Tom Stief on watch, it puts many of us older veterans at ease knowing our house is in order and where “semper fortis” and “semper fidelis” are not just a pair of mottos or a couple of catchwords, but an honorable and principled way of life.
(Maresca, a local freelance writer, composes “Talking Points” for each Sunday edition.)