Melissa Hemphill and her son at her US Air Force Academy graduation in 2011, the first day they'd been reunited as a family in nearly a year. For decades, cadets with children had to legally surrender parental rights to stay in school at any US service academy. Those rules are now being changed. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hemphill.
Every year, roughly a thousand Texas high schoolers and a few active-duty military members apply to Sen. Ted Cruz’s office, hoping he will nominate them to attend one of the five US service academies: the US Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, or the Merchant Marine Academy. He whittles that pool of applicants down to about 50 that he can submit for consideration.
Only a few of those end up making the final cut for admission.
In an interview with Coffee or Die, Cruz said he considers making nominations to the service academies an enormous privilege. From his vantage point, the caliber of young men and women who apply to the military academies is “breathtaking” and keeps him encouraged about the direction of the country.
But this month and in the coming weeks, according to a congressional briefing that Coffee or Die learned of, the five service academies will be making a long-awaited change to their enrollment rules that Cruz has been pushing for years. All the schools are either drawing up or already operating under rules set forth in the Candidates Afforded Dignity, Equality, and Training (CADET) Act, which Cruz helped push into the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The CADET Act reverses a longtime policy of expelling any cadet who becomes a parent. Though the rule applies to male cadets who father a child, Cruz and former cadets all agree that the consequences of the policy have long been much more likely to fall on women at the schools.
Melissa and Anthony Hemphill and their family in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hemphill.
In no other job or training program in the military does anyone face an absolute prohibition of parenthood — which the military defines as having legal dependents — not even basic trainees or cadets in ROTC programs at civilian universities.
For decades, female cadets who became pregnant faced a short list of difficult options: have an abortion; withdraw from school and repay the costs incurred during the time they were enrolled, commonly many tens of thousands of dollars; or put their child up to be adopted, legally surrendering their parental rights with no promise they will ever regain them.
“Those were three terrible choices to be forced on a young woman who is stepping forward to defend this nation,” Cruz told Coffee or Die. “It made no sense from a perspective of ensuring the most capable military, to force that choice upon her.”
Cruz took pains to note that, despite the policy ostensibly applying to both parents, the weight fell disproportionately on pregnant cadets. “As a practical matter, it was unfair that the male cadets who fathered a child found it far easier to avoid these consequences,” he said.
“The idea that we would be taking a young woman who has built an incredible academic career, and a career of leadership, and is stepping forward saying that she wants to be a leader in the military, protecting our nation — the idea that the government would think so little of her service and sacrifice as to force her into an impossible decision, a really horrific decision that no mom should be forced into, it made no sense.”
Cadets from the US Military Academy march during the 57th presidential inaugural parade along Pennsylvania Avenue, starting at the US Capitol to the White House in Washington, DC, Jan. 21, 2013. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade.
Melissa Hemphill lived through that impossible decision. In her third year at the Air Force Academy, the nationally ranked pole vaulter became pregnant. She and her then-boyfriend Anthony, also a cadet, chose to keep the baby.
Hemphill left the Academy for a year after delivering her son, Oliver, then signed all her parental rights away.
“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,” she wrote in The Washington Post.
As Anthony and Oliver drove away to his first duty station in Florida, “I cried and cried and cried,” Hemphill told Coffee or Die in 2021.
She returned for her final year at the academy in emotional agony but still managed to graduate. Free of academy rules as a second lieutenant, she married Anthony and the couple went to court to restore her legal status as Oliver’s parent.
The ordeal cost Hemphill nearly $20,000 in legal fees to give and then re-adopt her own child.
“At points it felt insurmountable,” Hemphill says now. “Looking back, this family we have, this child we have, the career I am still able to have — there’s a lot of pride for having made it through. We can see the long-term benefits of the sacrifices we made to try and keep our family together and to continue to serve.”
Sen. Ted Cruz co-sponsored the CADET Act, which was incorporated into the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Booker Thomas.
Hemphill’s academy experience led her to activism, determined to make sure other cadets didn’t have to live through the same struggles. “It was one of my career goals in the Air Force,” Hemphill said. Now in the Air Force Reserve and pursuing her doctorate in physical therapy, Hemphill still finds it difficult to believe the CADET Act is a reality.
“If I do nothing else in the Air Force, to have this policy change, it feels like I have arrived. It’s kind of wild. It feels surreal to me.”
Cruz co-sponsored the CADET Act with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Though Cruz is a rock-ribbed conservative Republican and Gillibrand a champion in progressive politics, Cruz said he calls the New York senator a friend and that the two have worked hand in hand on military policy in the past.
“Kirsten and I obviously have different views on abortion,” he said when asked whether approaching the legislation from a pro-life perspective made it difficult to find common ground with the fervently pro-choice Gillibrand. “But both of us agree that a mother shouldn’t be forced to have an abortion. Even if you’re pro-choice, a policy that is forcing a mother to have an abortion against her will — that ought to be an easy issue for everyone to come together. I think that’s led to natural bipartisan cooperation. Protecting the mother’s right to HAVE a child should be a 100-to-nothing issue in the Senate.”
According to a January briefing prepared by the Department of Defense for the congressional armed services committees and described to Coffee or Die, the DOD’s Instruction 1322.22 is undergoing an expedited update to bring current policies at all five academies into alignment with the law. The NDAA allowed the DOD one year from the law’s passage to make the requirements of the act a reality.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a progressive Democrat from New York, worked with Cruz, a leading conservative Republican, to move the CADET Act forward in the Armed Services Committee. US Army photo by Senior Airman Christopher Muncy.
The expected publication date for the update was Jan. 31, but as of Feb. 13 it is not available on the Department of Defense website. However, all military departments have immediate implementation plans in place ready to go upon receipt of the instruction.
According to Hemphill, the Air Force Academy has already begun informally implementing the new policy. “There are already cadet parents giving birth and not having to sever their parental rights,” she said. “It’s been really cool to actually see it happening.”
None of the service academies responded to Coffee or Die’s request for comment.
Cruz and others all insist that although the bill will change legal standing for parents, it will have virtually no effect on day-to-day life as a cadet. There will be no sudden influx of children living in the barracks.
Cadets who become parents will be required to establish a family care plan, a process similar to steps routinely taken by active-duty parents — particularly single parents — for deployments. Cadet parents will designate a legal guardian to have physical custody of their child, likely the second parent or a grandparent.
Anthony Hemphill as an Air Force Academy cadet with his son, Oliver. Melissa Hemphill dropped out of the academy while pregnant with Oliver while Anthony completed his senior year. Melissa then legally relinquished her parental rights to Oliver to return to the academy for her senior year, making Anthony a single parent as a second lieutenant. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hemphill.
But the legal separation will be temporary and easily reversed.
Mothers can also choose to take a full year of leave from the academies following the birth. Fathers will not acquire any benefits or leave rights beyond leave to attend the birth of the child.
“We are certainly going to be watching carefully and listening to any complaints that come from cadets who might experience the policy and practice being different from what it is on paper,” said Cruz. “But my hope and expectation is the academies will fully comply.”
The DOD congressional briefing acknowledges that details of pay and benefits need to be more fully examined in the near future.
Will cadets be required to abandon their TRICARE medical coverage during their year of leave, and will the birth and the child be eligible for military health care?
Oliver Hemphill, who was born after Melissa’s third year at the US Air Force Academy, has started participating in tween CrossFit competitions and hopes to attend the Air Force Academy himself. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hemphill.
Will cadets be paid during their leave?
Once back at school, will they receive additional pay to cover child support expenses?
Answers to those questions could come from the Pentagon or further congressional action.
But the first step is now underway.
Hemphill joined with two of her fellow former cadets to create a nonprofit called Military Academy Pregnancy Support (MAPS), helping cadets who find themselves navigating the new policy. “The overall impact of the legislation is that it doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it a little easier,” she said. “A little more doable. Because it’s still a shock. It’s still a massive life change. There’s a lot of things that need to happen and feelings that need to be processed and logistics to be worked out. But through the nonprofit we’re able to support them in a major way.”
And Oliver? He’s now a tween participating in CrossFit competitions. “He actually talks about going to the Air Force Academy,” she said with a laugh. “Which we’re not overtly encouraging him to do, but I feel that would be the ultimate, coming full circle, literally where he started. That would be hilarious.”
Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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