The United States Naval Academy, which is in Annapolis, Maryland, is a 173-year-old military school with a rich history. Those who have been and are now honored to walk the hallowed halls of the historic institution and attend classes there will attest that the campus is not a typical college campus and student life is somewhat different than what might be expected at most higher institutions of learning.
One reason for the difference is that the United States Naval Academy is not a college. It is a school designed to equip men and women with the knowledge and the know-how to perform crucial jobs at the duty stations to which they will be assigned and to prepare them to honorably serve their country as United States Navy or the United States Marine Corps officers. In addition to carrying a STEM-centric class load (physics, calculus, and chemistry), every USNA midshipman must master basic seamanship fundamentals, keep in shape and pass a physical readiness test, and his or her dorm room must always be at inspection ready.
The regimented routine at USNA is meant to be tough but having to face tough challenges is not something that is new to Midshipman Mason Wells. He was one of four full-time missionaries injured in the Brussels airport terrorist attack on 22 March 2016. He suffered severe injuries in the explosion, resulting in him spending months in the hospital and undergoing multiple surgeries and medical procedures. Speaking of the experience, he told The Church News.com, “I still have shrapnel in my head and in my legs — there are some things that are just going to stay with me.”
Many of Mason’s relatives had previously served in the military, and he was determined to follow suit by donning his country’s uniform. In the summer of 2017, he reported for Induction Day at the Naval Academy. Unlike a lot of his new classmates who had graduated high school just weeks prior, Mason was a returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often mistakenly called the “Mormon Church”). As a plebe, he was warned that there would be times of loneliness, privileges would be few, and there would be a plethora of new rules and regulations, including not being allowed to walk in the dorm hallways. As a plebe, he had to “chop” or jog through the enormous Bancroft Hall. He said, “And to be honest, it was really challenging. … We’re placed under a lot of stress. Plebe year was about breaking away from the civilian mold and living a military lifestyle.” He further stated that serving in the Paris France Mission gave him “the confidence and understanding that I can do anything with the Lord’s help.”
Reid and Shirley Chambers, a senior missionary couple for the Annapolis Maryland Stake, served as military missionaries. They became keenly aware of Mason’s quiet self-confidence when he arrived for Plebe Summer. Each Sunday when the Chambers visited the Academy to join the Latter-day Saint plebes for a brief sacrament meeting, they noticed that Mason “made others feel like they were his best friend.” He was always ready to offer an encouraging word or a welcoming handshake.
Most of Mason’s classmates had no idea that he was a survivor of the Belgium terrorist bombing until the book, Left Standing, which he co-authored with Tyler Beddoes and Billy Hallowell, was released in 2017. Most at the Academy were supportive, but some were not. The sudden awareness of his past spread like wildfire and prompted many discussions. Mason said, “I [definitely] felt more scrutinized. It was always on the radar.” He continued, “I found myself talking about my mission at least once a week at the Academy. Because of what I went through — and because I’m still a member of the Church — I have gained a certain respect for my religious views.”
Like the shrapnel in his head and legs, memories of the harrowing airport bombing remain. Mason experienced unwelcome emotions during an exhausting week of academic exams during his first plebe summer. He recalls, “At the end of the week, I had a pretty traumatic memory from the airport. I remember breaking down in my room because I was experiencing some of the same things I had experienced at the airport. I had many stresses going on in my life.” At that moment, his company commander entered the room and talked with him. The conversation that they had combined with his personal prayers helped to remind him that he had so much more to live for. It helped him to realize that for all that he had experienced thus far, he was “Left Standing” for a reason and a purpose.
Midshipman Third Class Wells no longer wears a missionary name tag. However, he still seeks opportunities to share the gospel. He recently baptized a fellow midshipman whom he met through mutual friends.
Mason is majoring in aerospace engineering and plans to become a U.S. Marine Corps aviator following graduation. Even though military life is a far cry from missionary life, as in his days serving as a full-time missionary, he relies on prayer and testimony to overcome life’s unavoidable challenges. He said, “I had to adapt and recognize that I’m not surrounded by Church members (at the Academy). I didn’t have time set aside here for spiritual aspects like I did on my mission, so I needed to make that a priority.”