The education of midshipmen is fairly well documented during the school week, and at some point it will probably be a subject of a post. However, I was recently reminded that learning can continue onto liberty. 

One of the great experiences we have are the foreign exchange programs. If selected, midshipmen have the opportunity to spend a semester at foreign universities or military academies. The ones I know who have gone abroad have developed some great friendships. It’s the “grunt work” for the Cooperative Maritime Strategy’s goal of “fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships with more international partners.”

This past Friday I got to see the benefits. I went out with a friend who spent last semester on exchange at the Japanese Self-Defense Academy to have dinner with a friend he had made in Japan. She’d been living in the US for six months, so we began to make conversation about her experiences. In fact, she had taken to the T.V. show “Family Guy,” enjoyed a game of Red Sox baseball, and really liked the American food. My friend mentioned he was going to see if he could inscribe Japanese characters on the inside of his class ring, celebrating his time as a member of “Class 54” at JDSA. We even talked about  the protest the George Washington received when visiting Yokosuka. 

I had tended to view “fostering and sustaining cooperative relationships” as something we see on the news: meetings between heads of state, joint military exercises, dispatching aid, etc. However, by sending service members abroad on cultural immersion trips, we don’t only gain more knowledge about another country, we develop personal relationships–the kind of relationships which make one consider inscribing foreign characters on his class ring. The experience was an excellent reminder that building human relationships is still vitally important in a service known for projecting power.

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Soft Power
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  • Rogue

    MIDN Withington,

    Good post, and I think you’re quite right. I believe there are historical examples of young American officers going abroad who built friendships which made a big difference, for them and the nation, in later situations.

    The fact is, we didn’t used to need to send Sailors overseas on immersions. Before we drew down the military and closed so many overseas bases, our Sailors were immersed in foreign cultures for entire PCS tours. There remain few examples of billets that allow this type of immersion.

    And it’s not only building personal relationships that is important. We also need Sailors of all ranks to have a base-line understanding of the foreign countries they visit before they go. With any luck they will gain some appreciation for the culture and the people, and maybe their liberty will include visits to locations that offer a bit more cultural significance than the bar closest to the pier.

    DoD, and particularly the Navy, have taken great steps toward cultural awareness and language familiarization training for all ranks. Simply learning a foreign language can give one a great appreciation for a foreign culture…and having even rudimentary language skills can make a big difference when working with foreign partners. Filling the language gap between us and them, whoever them is, is one of the reasons there are foreign language majors at the academy now.

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    Great post.

    In the ensuing years following my USNA experience, I have come to realize just how thoroughly the system in place at the institution weaves the training of Naval Officers into just about every aspect of their four years where Severn joins the tide. Keep up the great work.


    B. Walthrop

  • jwithington

    One of the more interesting conversations I’ve had with a professor spawned from me asking, “How was your summer?” He proceeded to enthusiastically show me pictures of him at the helm of an LPD (if I remember correctly) and riding on a helicopter. The Navy had flown him out to a ship operating in the South Pacific to educate the sailors onboard about the nearby cultures and history.

    The Navy does seem to recognize the value of such training and it’s very interesting to see how it affects us here.

  • Guilherme Azevedo

    Great post, MIDN Withington.

    I’d like to suggest another one on the FOREX programs: the instructors. For more than FOURTY years, naval officers from around the world have been working hard at USNA in order to help MIDN education and training.


  • jwithington

    While I have not had any foreign officers, a commander from the South Korean navy sends out weekly emails relating a parable or story to the Brigade. Generally we get frustrated with all the emails we get, but we really enjoy his insights.

  • Guilherme Azevedo

    That was exactly my point: there´s a lot of hard work put by those officers that goes unnoticed. Maybe that happens because most of them teach at SEANAV and MIDN are not interested in what is related to NAV and YPs.

    I say that because I had the honor to teach at SEANAV and to be YP Squadron O-Rep, spending a great deal of my spare time in classroom, simulators or underway while US Navy instructors were studying in DC area to get required degrees, if I´m not wrong. As another example of this work, during my tour (2003-2005), the Italian Officer was LANTPAT coordinator as a collateral duty, which was very demanding in both preparation and execution.

    We worked very hard but loved every minute of it!

    All the best

  • Kevin Newmeyer

    Midn Withington,
    Great post. I had the pleasure of a FOREX cruise with the JMSDF as a first class mid in 1982. Later as a junior officer finishing my JO sea tour in a CGN, I was nominated for an Olmsted Scholarship. My Olmsted experience was truly a defining moment in my career. I recommend you consider it yourself down the line.