Megan McClung wanted to be a U.S. Navy fighter pilot. Like millions of American kids who lived through the ’80s, she saw the original Top Gun and wanted to serve her country by flying fighter jets through enemy combat zones.
To reach her ultimate goal, Megan believed the U.S. Naval Academy was her best path. She also knew that becoming an officer in the U.S. military would be extremely difficult, and not just because her first Naval Academy application out of high school was denied. It would be tougher because she was a woman.
The first time future Maj. Megan McClung made history was in 1990, when she became the first female cadet ever admitted to the Admiral Farragut Academy Preparatory School. While Megan’s journey would eventually lead her to the U.S. Marine Corps instead of flying fighter jets in the Navy, I hope the below excerpt from my new book Be Bold demonstrates just how hard Megan McClung and other young women had to work to join the ranks of the Armed Forces. Their tireless efforts and huge sacrifices paved the way for current and future generations of military women.
Chapter 3: A Few Good Women
There is no chance, no destiny, no fate that can circumvent or hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
In the summer of 1990, just as President George H. W. Bush declared that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait “will not stand,” Megan McClung became the first female cadet ever accepted to Admiral Farragut Academy. While the Naval Academy Foundation helped her secure a spot, there was no doubt Megan earned her historic admission largely on the strength of her gymnastics prowess.
Before she ever stepped foot on the prep school’s campus in Pine Beach, New Jersey, she was being actively recruited by the Naval Academy’s head gymnastics coach. All Megan had to do was get through one year at Admiral Farragut and she would not only accomplish her dream of becoming a Navy midshipman, but an athlete.
It also took tremendous guts for Megan to even apply to Admiral Farragut given the institution’s prior track record of excluding young women. On September 7, 1990, her landmark accomplishment was noticed by New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, which ran a story about Admiral Farragut’s momentous change.
“First it was, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening to my school?’” said Commander Michael A. Pitch, then the academy’s director of public relations. “Then, ‘Well, it’s the ’90s.’”
Megan McClung and two fellow female students—a sixth grader and an eighth grader who were admitted after her historic acceptance—were extensively profiled by the newspaper in a piece headlined “The First Female Cadets.”
“McClung is a post-graduate student preparing to attend the Naval Academy in Annapolis next year,” Deborah Coombe wrote. “When McClung was awarded a U.S. Naval Foundation scholarship, she was told she required additional academic work before going to the academy. McClung hopes to be a Navy pilot.
“She said being the only girl in weightlifting classes helped prepare her for being the only female in her class at Admiral Farragut,” the article, which noted Megan helped “change Admiral Farragut’s all-male history,” noted. “McClung said she took weightlifting classes to help her with gymnastics, which she intends to continue while she is boarding at Farragut.”
Megan was quoted several times in the article.
“They [the physical requirements] are not a real struggle for me,” she told the newspaper.
Even so, Megan had to adjust to a lifestyle even her Marine Corps father couldn’t fully prepare her for.
“Cadet Commander Bradley D. Moses said physical training, known as PT on campus, begins soon after rising at 5:30 a.m.,” the article explained. “Cadets report to the field for a 30-to-45-minute workout.”
Megan, who was only in her second day of classes when she spoke to The Star-Ledger, was undeterred.
“The hard part is over . . . getting into the military way of life,” she said.
As the first and oldest female cadet, Megan felt an extraordinary sense of responsibility to set an example for not only her two much younger classmates, but those who would follow in their footsteps.
Upon her arrival, Megan McClung immediately told every commander who would listen that she wanted to be treated exactly like her male counterparts. She quickly learned no matter how much she protested, that wasn’t always going to be the case.
“The upper floor of the building housing the infirmary is being renovated to accommodate 30 girls,” the newspaper noted.
While Megan didn’t know it at the time, her father had not only asked the school to build separate female living quarters, but to have a special lock put on the door to keep boys out. Having served in the Marine Corps at around the same age, Mike knew what some guys could be like and didn’t want anyone sneaking into his daughter’s room at night.
As male students were screamed at for folding their underwear the wrong way, instructors looked at Megan with incredulity as she folded her panties and hung up her bra. While admitting a woman was a much-needed first step, it was immediately obvious Admiral Farragut hadn’t quite thought things through. Most of the time, Megan would just laugh when it was clear how unprepared some of the commanders were willing or able to join the public relations director in saying “Well, it’s the ’90s.”
Behind her sense of humor was the enormous weight she carried on her shoulders for that entire year. Megan believed if she asked for one special privilege, it would give the academy the only excuse it needed to ostracize or even expel female cadets. She also knew if she failed, not only would her dream of becoming a Navy pilot evaporate, but so might the chances of future young women who wanted to follow the trail she was trying to blaze. The patriotic fervor sweeping the nation in the run-up to the first Gulf War only strengthened Megan’s resolve to succeed.
The copper red-haired cadet’s underlying seriousness was immediately noticed by her new 1st Company commander, Sean Rankine.
“She means business,” Sean remarked to a classmate upon witnessing the frenetic pace of Megan’s first workout.
In addition to fulfilling Admiral Farragut’s rigorous physical requirements, five days a week Megan boarded a bus bound for Lakehurst, which is about twenty minutes from Pine Beach. There she practiced gymnastics, which was getting harder and harder as her body kept evolving. While continuing growth is obviously normal for a teenager, it can be distressing for gymnasts trying to follow specific and complicated routines. While Megan kept competing at a high level, she was getting frustrated with not always being able to twist and turn like she could in her younger years.
Adapting to East Coast life wasn’t easy for someone born in Hawaii and raised in California, either. There was a lot more fried food on the menu, which gave Megan the only excuse she needed to eat less and less. While she did make a “deal” with the kitchen staff to make her special plates full of fruit and vegetables instead of meat and potatoes, Megan was starting to develop a pattern of not eating enough to support her demanding exercise and training routine.
In Megan’s mind, eating less would counteract a changing physique and help her keep excelling in gymnastics. In reality, she was in the early stages of developing an eating disorder.
The pressure was real and constant, even if others couldn’t always see it. As one classmate put it, Megan was received with a “mixed bag” in that most of the cadets and faculty welcomed her with open arms, while some were true traditionalists who simply didn’t want girls at Admiral Farragut or anywhere near the U.S. Armed Forces.
Even as more than 40,000 female service members were busy deploying for Operation Desert Storm, the role of women in the military was still very much a hot-button issue in the early 1990s. A July 25–26, 1991, Gallup poll—taken just a few months after the U.S.-led Gulf War victory—found 47 percent of Americans didn’t think women should be required to register for the draft. Just 26 percent thought women should automatically get combat assignments on the same terms as men, with 53 percent responding “only if they want to” and 18 percent “never.” A similar November 10–11, 1992, Gallup poll found 42 percent still opposed allowing military women into combat jobs.
Megan knew some people didn’t want her at Admiral Farragut or the Naval Academy, but did her best to ignore it, at least in public view. In Megan’s mind, even one episode of whining or complaining would amount to victory for those trying to keep her down. Megan and her company commander even developed special code words to use if some of the guys were giving her a hard time — not to get anyone in trouble, but just to confide in Rankine something was bothering her. Other than the few good men who had her complete trust, be it the company commander or her dad, Megan didn’t want anyone else knowing someone or something was getting her down.
When male students or instructors picked on Megan, especially in her first few months at Admiral Farragut, she occasionally became so overwhelmed with stress she pulled out strands of her beautiful copper-red hair. During that challenging year in New Jersey, Megan often found the best way to deal with the stress — and prevent early hair loss — was to sleep with socks on her hands.
Other than those socks, the only other solution Megan saw was giving 100 percent at all times. That tendency could sometimes rankle others around her, including a female cadet who was admitted to the academy later in the year. Megan wasn’t trying to show anyone else up with her fierce work ethic, but in an intense and competitive setting built to closely resemble the military, jealousy and wariness would sometimes come between the cadets.
Close bonds also developed, including between Megan and her company commander. During Christmas break, she called Rankine for almost three hours to do a cross country “play-by-play” analysis of the 1991 Rose Bowl Parade. When they finally hung up, Sean realized Megan probably would have stayed on the phone for another three hours had he been able. While having “zest for life” can be a cliché, it was completely accurate in Megan’s case.
Like millions of fellow Americans, Megan celebrated with her friends as the American-led coalition quickly marched to victory over Saddam Hussein’s troops in what no one could have predicted would be the first U.S. military conflict with Iraq. Speaking about the historic events with her dad, who had long agonized over his and the country’s experience in Vietnam, helped Megan grasp what the Gulf War victory meant, not only to the troops who were fighting but those who fought in previous conflicts. She yearned to join that revered fraternity of American warriors.
On April 15, 1991, the biggest moment thus far in Megan’s journey finally arrived in the form of a thick packet with an Annapolis, Maryland, return address. As she tore open the envelope, she knew the fate of her future dreams rested on what was written on the papers inside.
Addressed to “Miss Megan McClung,” the cover letter was typed on official U.S. Navy letterhead from the Chief of Naval Operations:
Congratulations on your receipt of an offer of appointment to the United States Naval Academy, Class of 1995. Should you accept this offer, you will be taking an important first step toward becoming a commissioned officer in the United States Navy or Marine Corps.
Your four years at the Academy will challenge you both academically and physically. You will experience a special camaraderie with your fellow midshipmen and a proud sense of accomplishment. You will receive an education which will prepare you for a career as a leader in the world’s most capable and technologically advanced Navy. You will be given every chance to realize your full potential as you gain the knowledge and acquire the skills needed to be a leader on our Navy/Marine Corps team.
You have already demonstrated an outstanding ability to excel. The Naval Academy will offer you the opportunity to expand that ability even more.
I extend to you my sincere congratulations and best wishes for continued success.
Frank B. Kelso, II
Admiral, U.S. Navy
Megan McClung was one of five Admiral Farragut Academy cadets to gain acceptance to the United States Naval Academy in 1991. She was the first to receive official word.
While Megan promised herself she wouldn’t celebrate in public, she couldn’t help herself upon reading the letter. With almost no control over her mind and body, she leapt as high in the air as any young gymnast was capable and let out a celebratory shout.
A cadet named Spencer, who would soon become one of the “Farragut Five” accepted to Annapolis, was initially jealous. That was until he realized that Megan, as the first woman to not only get into Admiral Farragut but jump from that academy to the legendary one in Annapolis, earned every right to rejoice.
“She’s proud,” Spencer told a classmate. “And she darn well should be.”
Inside the 1991 Admiral Farragut yearbook is a picture of the first woman ever to attend the prestigious academy, which is now located on a single campus in Saint Petersburg, Florida.
“If it wasn’t for her example, the women at Farragut never would have been able to do what they did,” Megan’s company commander Sean Rankine later said. “That program wouldn’t have survived.”
Next to Megan’s yearbook picture are her nicknames at the school: “FC, Giggle B and Sinead,” most likely a reference to pop singer Sinead O’Connor. The description also notes her participation in gymnastics, love of her home state of California, apple juice and “codes”—undoubtedly referencing the secret system she maintained with her company commander. It also lists her ambition as “test pilot, U.S. Navy,” since women were still two years away from being allowed to fly combat aircraft in combat zones.
The description’s last line is the cadet’s personal quote.
“I am more scared of being nothing than I am of being hurt,” Megan McClung wrote.
Be Bold: How a Marine Corps Hero Broke Barriers for Women at War is available from Fidelis Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and everywhere books are sold.