Multiple current and former midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, told Fox News Digital that “woke” ideology has been seeping into the school in recent years and has accelerated under the leadership of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The highly selective USMMA, which is the only military academy authorized to carry a battle standard because of its 142 casualties during World War II, is under the Department of Transportation and educates leaders “who are inspired to serve the national security, marine transportation, and economic needs of the United States,” according to its website.
The academy made headlines in January for a controversy over “Christ on the Water,” a historic painting that depicts Jesus Christ walking on the water toward merchant mariners lost at sea. The image painted by Hunter Wood, a merchant mariner whose art drew on his own experiences, has adorned the Elliot M. See conference room located in the school’s administrative Wiley Hall for 76 years.
“Aboard the fragile lifeboats, the men [in World War II] placed their faith in a Power greater than theirs, interpreted here by Hunter Wood in perhaps his most ambitious work,” reads a description of the painting by the USMMA from the 1970s.
The academy placed a white curtain over the painting after a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). In his Jan. 10 letter to USMMA Superintendent Vice Adm. Joanna M. Nunan, MRFF president and founder Michael Weinstein argued that the painting’s display constituted a violation of the First Amendment’s clause forbidding the establishment of religion.
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After the move prompted a petition and letters to Nunan from figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and other members of Congress, the academy announced that the massive painting will be uncovered but ultimately moved to the school’s chapel, which multiple sources told Fox News Digital is prone to flooding.
‘There was just no hope for them’
One midshipman at the academy who spoke to Fox News Digital on condition of anonymity said Nunan is well qualified for her position and that he remains unsure to what extent she played a role in the Jesus painting controversy, but he noted that many of his friends are frustrated by it because “there are bigger problems going on with the school.”
The Jesus painting situation is a symptom of woke-ism that is “absolutely” infiltrating the USMMA, said John Guettlein, a 2022 graduate of the academy who spoke to Fox News Digital from a fishing vessel off the coast of Alaska.
Guettlein pinpointed the school’s COVID-19 vaccine policies as the start of the trend, which he claimed drew pushback from many of the midshipmen when the school began cracking down on the unvaccinated in 2021.
“It was basically [get the vaccine] or get kicked out of the academy, and for an entire year, they were picking off one by one,” he said, adding that of approximately 140 midshipmen who originally refused the shot, that number was whittled down to four in his graduating class amid threats of possible expulsion and paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
“A lot of the freshmen, a lot of my friends, just straight-up left because they didn’t want to get into a school that was threatening that. There was just no hope for them,” Guettlein said, adding that he and other seniors were better able to withstand the vaccine mandate because they had already logged extensive time at sea and had “a lot more on the line.”
“There was a lot less woke stuff around campus, and then it’s just slowly crept in.”
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According to multiple sources who spoke to Fox News Digital, midshipmen who refused the vaccine were also prohibited from eating dinner in the school’s Delano Hall and were required to pick up boxed food during a brief window of time that often fell during sports competitions.
“So, there were a lot of times when people were missing meals,” Guettlein said. “People had to order out and pay for their own food. As freshmen, you can’t even order out technically, so it would be upperclassmen getting them food.”
One midshipman’s mother who spoke to Fox News Digital said she mailed food to her son.
A 2021 email obtained by Fox News Digital shows that former USMMA Superintendent Vice Adm. Joachim Buono said the dining hall policy “encourages unvaccinated midshipmen to become vaccinated.”
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Guettlein and another source said that the school ostracized the unvaccinated from their friends, segregated them in formation and required them to wear masks and social distance, even though the vaccinated midshipmen were still testing positive for COVID-19.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Maritime Administration told Fox News Digital in a statement that the USMMA is a place where “essential values of mutual respect and dignity are firmly upheld, and we take pride in establishing a campus that reflects excellence, service and honor.”
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy put in place precautions to ensure the health and wellbeing of all midshipmen, faculty and staff, and we disagree with any assertions that any member of our community was mistreated for any reason related to the pandemic,” the spokesperson added.
‘A warped perspective’
Fearing retaliation that could extend beyond their academic careers and effectively “blacklist” them professionally, multiple midshipmen currently attending the academy spoke to Fox News Digital on condition of anonymity but echoed Guettlein’s assertion that the school has become increasingly politicized in recent years.
“There was a lot less woke stuff around campus, and then it’s just slowly crept in,” said a midshipman who has been at the school since 2021. He noted how the main passageway of the school was adorned with a mural promoting LGBTQ ideology.
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Multiple sources recounted that during a recent question-and-answer session with Nunan about the Jesus painting, a midshipman received a standing ovation from the other students for asking why a painting of Jesus was being removed because it might offend some people, while material promoting LGBTQ was allowed prominence despite potentially offending people of faith.
“I’m just kind of paraphrasing, but [Nunan] basically said that you have to glorify the minority,” one of the sources said.
“It’s almost like we’re the last frontier for woke ideology.”
Guettlein noted that during his time there, the school made shirts emblazoned with a rainbow logo and offered midshipmen the option of wearing them with their uniform khakis during a “Spirit Day.”
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One current senior midshipman said he was “really excited” to attend the USMMA because it seemed the academy was “totally immune from anything political,” but he noted much has been changing since he has been there.
“We had no discussions on race; we had no discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion,” the midshipman said of when his USMMA career began in 2019. “It was just us as merchant mariners getting together very well, and we have our own very individualistic culture.”
Nunan, who became the school’s first female superintendent in December, boasts of having helped “spearhead efforts to expand diversity and inclusion in the Coast Guard,” according to her official USMMA biography.
The senior midshipman laid partial blame for the cultural changes on both her and Buttigieg, claiming the transportation secretary “has put a bunch of people in power” with “a warped perspective” regarding how the school must be made more diverse.
“They’re trying to institute cultural change, but on the ground, the midshipman culture has not changed,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate, the politicization that our school has undergone from the new administration, and it only seems to be getting worse,” he continued. “And quite frankly, I’m happy that I’m on my way out because you really can’t speak up politically here. You could easily get reprimanded. It is what it is, whereas it used not to be the case.”
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“It’s very clear that there are ideological differences between the people in charge here and the people who actually go here, as well as the majority of the professors who are actually conservative themselves,” the midshipman said, adding that he and his peers now sometimes feel “targeted.”
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“It’s almost like we’re the last frontier for woke ideology,” he said of the Merchant Marine.