Outgoing Naval Academy Commandant Reflects on Annapolis Tenure: 'We Cannot Rest'

Outgoing Commandant of Midshipmen Marine Col. James P. McDonough III gives remarks
Outgoing Commandant of Midshipmen Marine Col. James P. McDonough III gives remarks. Marine Col. James P. McDonough III was relieved as Naval Academy Commandant of Midshipmen by Navy Capt. Walter H. Allman III during a Change of Leadership Ceremony Wednesday morning in front of Bancroft Hall. (Paul W. Gillespie/Staff photo)

Since becoming commandant in 2021, Col. James P. McDonough has viewed the roughly 4,400 midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy as similar to his children.

His guidance on their day-to-day conduct, military training and professional development is not unlike the way McDonough, a father of four, raised his own children, two of whom followed him into the Marine Corps.

“To me, that means that I love them, but I’m going to hold them accountable,” he said. “And if they need to be corrected or if they need to learn, I’m there to do that.”

While “dad” is a title he’ll hold forever, McDonough’s time as the commandant of midshipmen at the academy came to an end Wednesday. An artillery officer commissioned into the Marines in 1994, McDonough capped off his 30-year military career by relinquishing the position to Capt. Walter H. Allman, the first Navy SEAL to take the role.

McDonough’s time as commandant was marked by a series of transitions. As he stepped into the role, he was tasked with restoring normalcy on the academy grounds after the COVID-19 pandemic. In his three years, the academy had three different superintendents. three superintendents at the helm. “]Though current Superintendent Vice Adm. Yvette M. Davids was slated to take over from Rear Adm. Sean Buck last summer, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama blocked military appointments in the Senate in a protest of the Pentagon’s abortion policies. Rear Adm. Fred Kacher served in an interim role from August to January before Davids began her term.

“The idea of reestablishing normalcy and getting people back to what we’re supposed to be doing here on a day in, day out basis, was a challenge,” McDonough said. “And it required explaining to the midshipmen why it’s important that we live a disciplined life.”

It took a lot of prompting, McDonough said of the mids — as the students are commonly known –  to get them to even go to breakfast every day. At some point, however, they realized it was for their own good.

Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Yvette M. Davids said McDonough was the “right officer” for that reconstruction phase.

“Upon his arrival, [former] Superintendent Sean Buck charged J.P. with improving the professionalism, the accountability and the esprit de corps within the brigade, all of which needed to be reinforced after the remote learning forced on the academy by the  [COVID] pandemic,” she said during a change of leadership ceremony Wednesday. “And he rose to the call and did beautifully.”

Just like the midshipmen, McDonough was being educated, too.

“I probably learned more in the last three years about leadership than I had in the 27 years before that,” he said. “It sounds amazing to say that, but I learned a lot about people.”

While the challenges that today’s midshipmen face are different than what he dealt with while at the academy in the 1990s, McDonough said he built resiliency, in part by having needed hard conversations.

“We called them four-minute drills — putting a problem in front of the midshipmen while they’re at squad tables in King Hall [the dining hall] — to challenge some of the things going on around how we treat each other,” he said. “Everything from ideas of locker room talk or other things, just so people know that instead of just turning a blind eye to problems, that you have to confront them.”

Before starting, McDonough knew he would need to talk with the midshipmen about sexual assault in the military, he said in August 2021. Those conversations came following a sexual assault case against a midshipman earlier that year. Though Garrett Lee Holsen, now 22, was acquitted of rape, a retrial is pending, with renewed scrutiny on the assault and other sex offense charges.

Reflecting during Wednesday’s ceremony outside Bancroft Hall, McDonough said the academy is in a good place.

“We are doing well but we cannot rest,” he said. “We owe it to the mids and the sailors and the Marines they will lead to make sure their character is solid.”

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