A popular adage at the United States Naval Academy aptly describes the unusual student life at the 173-year-old military school: Not College.
Besides carrying a STEM-centric class load (physics, calculus and chemistry), every USNA midshipman must master seamanship fundamentals, sweat out endless numbers of push ups and pull-ups and keep his or her dorm room in, well, shipshape.
So adjusting to Academy life is challenging for even the most dedicated student. It’s supposed to be tough.
But Mason Wells is a tough young man.
Long before enduring the rigors of military life at the Academy, Mason survived almost unimaginable pain and horror.
Latter-day Saints know his story well.
He was one of four full-time missionaries injured in the March 22, 2016, Brussels airport terrorist attack. The young elder suffered serious injuries in the explosion, spent months in the hospital and endured multiple surgeries and medical procedures.
“I still have shrapnel in my head and in my legs — there are some things that are just going to stay with me,” he said matter-of-factly.
But he marked a key moment in his recovery in the summer of 2017 when he reported for Induction Day at the Naval Academy, fulfilling a promise he made himself years earlier. Many of his relatives had served in the military, and he was determined to also wear his country’s uniform.
Wells was warned his freshman year (or plebe year in Academy-speak) would be long and sometimes lonesome. First year students enjoy few privileges and plenty of new rules and regulations. Even walking in the dorm hallways is prohibited — plebes must “chop” or jog through the massive Bancroft Hall.
“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 said.
But while most of his new classmates were weeks removed from high school graduation, Wells arrived at the Academy seasoned by mission moments both joyful and tragic.
Serving in the France Paris Mission, he said, “gave me the confidence and understanding that I can do anything with the Lord’s help.”
Reid and Shirley Chambers immediately spotted Wells' quiet self-assurance. The Chambers were serving as military missionaries in Annapolis when he arrived for Plebe Summer. Each Sunday, Elder and Sister Chambers visited the Academy to join the Latter-day Saint plebes for a brief sacrament service. Despite the rigors of basic training, Wells was always on the lookout for others needing an encouraging word or a welcoming handshake.
“Mason made others feel like they were his best friend,” said Reid Chambers.
Most of Wells' classmates knew nothing about his connection to the Belgium terrorist bombing until the 2017 release of the hope-driven book he co-authored entitled “Left Standing.”
“Word spread pretty quickly. ... I definitely felt more scrutinized. It was always on the radar.”
Most at the Academy were supportive. Some were not. But the awareness of his past prompted frequent discussions.
“I found myself talking about my mission at least once a week at the Academy,” he said. “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 body, the memories of the airport bombing remain. A grueling week of academic exams during his first plebe semester triggered unwelcome emotions.
“At the end of the week, I had a pretty traumatic memory from the airport,” he said. “I remember breaking down in my room because I was experiencing some of the same things I had experienced in the airport. I had many stresses going on in my life.”
But help arrived unexpectedly.
“At that very moment, my company commander walked in my room and talked with me. Our talk, along with a lot of the prayers I had sent up, reminded me of an eternal perspective that life is bigger than the stresses of the day and the problems of tomorrow.
“I remembered that we have so much more to live for.”
Midshipman Third Class Wells no longer wears a missionary name tag. But he still seeks opportunities to share the gospel. In a few days he is baptizing a fellow midshipman.
“We met through mutual friends. She started taking the missionary discussions, and I’ve been there every step of the way.”
Wells is majoring in aerospace engineering and plans to become a U.S. Marine Corps aviator following graduation. He’s learned military life is far different from missionary life. But in proven missionary-form, he relies upon prayer and testimony to overcome life’s inevitable challenges.
“I had to adapt and recognize that I’m not surrounded by Church members (at the Academy),” he said. “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.”
Fellow Latter-day Saints agree Wells is well equipped for the days and years ahead. He still stands tall.
“Mason is just a great guy,” said Reid Chambers, “and a great example to all of us.”