Melissa Hemphill and her son at her US Air Force Academy graduation in 2011. Photo courtesy of Melissa Hemphill.
Melissa Hemphill took the pregnancy test that changed her life in a Walmart bathroom. She was a junior at the US Air Force Academy, a potential Olympian pole vaulter, and the oldest of eight kids in a large Catholic family; a child was definitely not part of her plans.
Hemphill, whose maiden name is Beerse, was fully aware that rules governing all five US service academies — the Air Force, Naval, Military, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine academies — forbade cadets and midshipmen from having dependents, a requirement for service that exists nowhere else in the military, nor in civilian ROTC programs. Since the father of Hemphill’s child was also a cadet, they faced a short list of terrible choices. But both were determined to graduate.
“Keep the family together, still graduate,” became their mantra.
Military academies do not make such a plan easy. And though the rules apply to both men and women, the consequences fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of female cadets. Many women who find themselves pregnant as cadets get abortions, says Hemphill, who in her years since graduating from the Air Force Academy has privately counseled dozens of cadets — both men and women — dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Other women drop out of school and leave dreams of military careers behind. Those like Melissa and her now-husband, Anthony, who want to make both parenthood and military careers work, face a nightmarish legal web that forces cadets to make a draconian legal choice: fully relinquish their parental rights to their own biological children or face expulsion from the academy.
But a bill, dubbed the Candidates Afforded Dignity, Equality and Training (CADET) Act, recently introduced in the Senate by two politicians normally on opposite ends of the political spectrum, would change all that.
This unlikely duo — firebrand conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and sharp-elbowed progressive champion Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — hope the CADET Act will end up in the year-end National Defense Authorization Act, the omnibus bill that authorizes budget appropriations for the entire Department of Defense. The act would prevent the academies from disenrolling cadets who become pregnant or father a child during their time at school.
The CADET Act would not, however, lead to day care centers popping up in academy dorms. Cadets would still not be allowed to have physical or legal custody of their children, nor would they be provided with any version of family housing, which is common elsewhere in the military, even in many training schools (cadets at all five academies are required to live in campus dorms for all four years of school).
The key change would be to allow cadets who become parents to temporarily name guardians for their children, such as their own parents or siblings, or grant full but temporary parental rights over to non-cadet parents. The intent is to bring the rights and responsibilities of cadet parents roughly in line with those that apply to many parents in the larger military — particularly single parents — for deployments and other periods apart, the CADET Act sponsors say.
While the cadet parent is in school, the guardian would care for the child. The cadet would regain full parental rights at graduation.
Christian Paasch, chair of the National Parents Organization of Virginia and an Air Force Academy graduate, says the bill was long past due and would benefit everyone involved. “We know that kids benefit from having as much time as possible with both parents,” Paasch tells Coffee or Die Magazine. “The current rules actively prevent parents writ large, men and women, from becoming engaged parents to their kids.”
After she discovered she was pregnant, Hemphill says, she and Anthony quickly laid out a difficult but clear path: She would finish her junior year, then drop out for the term of her pregnancy, while Anthony would stay in school and graduate. Then, after skipping a full year of school, Melissa would try to return to the academy for her own senior year. But she would be ineligible to return with a legal dependent. Therefore, she’d have to sign over full legal custody of the baby — in effect, legally abandon the child — to Anthony, who by then would be on active duty. He would care for the child until she graduated. They planned to then marry and together start the complicated — and expensive — process of Melissa adopting her own child back.
“The current rules actively prevent parents writ large, men and women, from becoming engaged parents to their kids.”
“On average, it costs about three to four thousand dollars, out of pocket, to terminate rights and later regain your child,” says Megan Biles, an Air Force Academy graduate who is at Georgetown studying the effect of pregnancy on cadets.
The couple sought out family lawyers to begin the tortuous process, but most counseled against the plan in harsh terms. “I was told during those meetings, ‘Don’t do your plan, it’s so risky, he can take your baby, and you’ll never see him again,’” Hemphill recalls. The legal power of custody, lawyers told her, would give the father “so much leverage in case the relationship goes sideways.”
But Hemphill was undeterred. She spent the remainder of her junior year growing more and more obviously pregnant. “As soon as the word got out, the academy was like a junior high,” she remembers. “It was like my belly was in the spotlight. It was isolating.”
She then took a year off from school, living with her parents in Ohio. She had every intention of returning, but there was plenty of time for doubt to grow. “People said, ‘Once you have that baby, you’re not going to want to come back,’ and it was true,” she says. “It was just me and my son for nine months. I was with him 100% of the time.”
Before she returned to the academy, she signed away custody of her own child.
“I had to basically hand him off, and they drove away to [Anthony’s] first base, which was in Florida,” Hemphill says. “I just cried and cried and cried.”
Hemphill drowned herself in responsibility, becoming a squadron commander. But by the time the spring semester rolled around, she was dealing with suicidal ideation. “It was the worst year of my life, being back,” she says. But she made it through, graduated in 2011, adopted her own child, and married Anthony.
They now have four children, and Melissa Hemphill teaches biology at the Air Force Academy. “I tell my cadets about my scandalous time there,” Hemphill says. “What’s been fantastic, and heartbreaking, is that, just by virtue of being open about it, I became this underground confidant for cadets that are currently in this situation.”
But having fought through the two-year ordeal — and knowing that many women in similar situations as hers choose different paths — Hemphill began collecting stories of other cadets. She has heard from cadets, both men and women, dealing with unplanned pregnancies, and even from people who, as children, were wrenched away from their biological cadet parents.
She has uncovered decades of heartbreak.
Hemphill corresponded with 52-year-old twin daughters of a US Naval Academy midshipman who was forced to give up his paternal rights to stay in school. They were not reunited with their father until 50 years later through DNA testing results. “While we are happily reunited with our birth father and birth mother and extended family, it is bittersweet because of the lost years,” they told Hemphill.
One of Hemphill’s correspondents felt pressured into an abortion by both authorities at West Point and the child’s father. The woman told Hemphill in an email, “It was the biggest regret of my life.”
One father, who relinquished parental rights to his daughter while attending the US Military Academy at West Point, told Hemphill that he had constant panic attacks following his daughter’s birth. “I would either question my worth or value as a father because I couldn’t be present for my daughter, or I would play every catastrophic scenario in my head in which I never regained custody of my child,” he wrote in an email to Hemphill. “The fears of never getting to parent my daughter, not getting to enjoy each of her discoveries and successes with her, and not having the opportunity to do everything in my power to make her better than myself in every way mortified me.”
Megan Biles has heard many similar stories while preparing her capstone on the subject at Georgetown. “Emotionally, my heart breaks for the women who had abortions, who felt pressured into it,” Biles tells Coffee or Die. “Or one of those girls who terminate guardianship, and $10,000 later the father is refusing to give her any parental rights, and she’s losing the battle in court.”
One of Hemphill’s correspondents felt pressured into an abortion by both authorities at West Point and the child’s father. The woman told Hemphill in an email, “It was the biggest regret of my life.
“I think that a change in policy would remove the pressure or burden to choose the pursuit of our education and career over our child, especially at a time that is so stressful and when we are still developing and susceptible to the influence of others.
“I barely remember that year, I was so consumed with guilt over my choice.”
Others ran into terrifying roadblocks as they tried to regain custody of their children. Another woman whom Hemphill spoke with let her mother adopt her child so she could continue her education at West Point. Her mother refused to give the child back for seven years. “My mother insisted I be married in the Catholic church before taking back my son,” the woman wrote to Hemphill. “I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t even dating at the time.”
And some women just give up their careers entirely. “I felt very sad and stuck as they used fear-mongering techniques, which made me feel I had no choice in my rights and how things were handled,” a former Air Force Academy cadet told Hemphill. “I took the quiet path, did what I was told, held to my guns on remaining pregnant, just to leave.”
Paasch is optimistic about the chances for the CADET Act to pass. “I think it’s telling that you have two senators like Cruz and Gillibrand, who are about as far apart as you can be politically, that both say this is the right thing to do,” he says. “Especially in this day and age, that doesn’t happen a lot.”
Hemphill is eager to see the CADET Act passed into law and hopes that her story and the others she has compiled might help that happen. “Looking at it from a black-and-white policy perspective doesn’t capture the heartache that’s actually on the ground,” she says. “My responsibility now is to use this, having lived through it. It’s taboo, it’s shameful — there are so many reasons why people have suffered in silence.”
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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