My cadet boyfriend, now husband, Anthony Hemphill, and I never intended to start a family at the Air Force Academy. Anthony had played a central role in helping me to overcome previous sexual trauma. He fostered a relationship of safety and respected my boundaries of reclaimed abstinence. We developed deep emotional intimacy before, unsurprisingly, it evolved to physical intimacy.
Because we were students at a military academy, Anthony and I were subject to a harsh, antiquated policy that does not allow cadets to have dependents. This meant, and still means, that cadets in our position either must terminate the pregnancy or permanently sever their parental rights to graduate and commission as officers. If Anthony and I wanted to keep our child and our parental rights, we had to resign or face expulsion.
We were determined to honor our commitments to both our future family and the Air Force Academy. But to do so, we had to negotiate a costly and circuitous legal maze. I left the academy for a year and gave birth to Oliver while Anthony remained a cadet and severed his parental rights so that he could graduate. Once he commissioned, he adopted Oliver and I severed my parental rights. Anthony and Oliver moved to Florida for Anthony’s first assignment, and I returned to the academy.
After I commissioned and graduated, I finally adopted the baby to whom I had given birth the previous year. In all, we spent nearly $20,000 on legal fees — while being repeatedly warned that there was no guarantee we would be able to get back our parental rights.
The “no dependents” policy understandably reflects the difficulty of reconciling parenthood with the intense demands of a military academy. But requiring cadets to fully relinquish their children is cruel and unnecessary. While this terminated our legal relationship, it did not terminate our emotional connection and love for Oliver. I sobbed through my relinquishment hearing, having to verbally affirm that I willingly was giving up my rights as a mother with no intention of getting them back.
At the time, the shamed and critical voice in my head told me I deserved this treatment. It felt like penance for having conceived a child both prior to marriage and while attending a military academy. What I have learned since then is that no one deserves the outcomes of this policy.
Pregnancy has been happening at service academies long before women were admitted in 1976, and it continues to affect far more women and men than you might think. When I returned to the Air Force Academy for my senior year in 2010 and again as an instructor of biology in 2016, I became an underground resource for any cadet with a pregnancy. I have been collecting testimonials from affected mothers, fathers and biological children across all service academies and their stories are one traumatic experience after another.
While this archaic policy applies to males and females alike, it disproportionately affects the pregnant partner. Anthony and I had been equally responsible for the pregnancy, but he could have easily hidden his paternity and circumvented the penalties, as many cadet fathers have done. Obviously, he did not. Meanwhile I faced daily pressures. A high-ranking female officer told me she would perform “belly checks” each week and find a reason to expel me once I started to look pregnant. Fellow cadets stared at my still-flat belly rather than meeting my eyes. I felt like I wore a scarlet letter.
The broader military community already has a solution to the dilemma of service members confronted with conflicting military and family responsibilities. It is the Family Care Plan, which establishes temporary guardianship for dependents in the rare cases that a single parent — or, in a dual-military family, both parents — have duties that would not permit them to care for the day-to-day needs of their children. The Defense Department could simply alter its policy to permit such family care plans at service academies.
Recently, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced bipartisan legislation, the Candidates Afforded Dignity, Equality and Training (CADET) Act, which would prohibit the forced termination of parental rights by military academies and instead offer more practical alternatives, including the family care plans. Nothing about academy life would change; it would simply make a really hard situation more humane.
After my graduation in 2011, Anthony and I married and have welcomed three more children. We both continue to serve proudly; Anthony as an active duty logistics officer and me as a reservist biology instructor. Our careers and our family survived this painful ordeal.
But it is time to bring this policy and our military academies into the 21st century. It’s time to retain our talented servicemembers, keep our families together and treat our cadets like humans. It’s time for change.