ANNAPOLIS -- This year's graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy share an uncommon distinction.
Call them near-veterans. For the first time in a generation, midshipmen at the academy saw their country fight a war.
And while the Persian Gulf conflict began and ended in the equivalent of a half-semester, the war served to remind the future Navy and Marine Corps officers of just what will be expected of them.
"It really does focus you on what's expected of you," said Caren M. Ritter, 21, a Calvert County resident who received her commission as a Navy ensign yesterday. "It drew us together. We all knew we were in the Navy. I'm glad we went through it."
In interviews conducted last week, a group of graduating midshipmen shared their thoughts about their wartime senior year.
They recalled huddling around television sets in Bancroft Hall, the academy's sprawling dormitory, as they kept close watch on the war. Curfews were suspended to allow for late-night viewing. Care packages and letters were collected by the midshipmen and mailed to the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf.
Some of the mids had served aboard ships deployed in the region at the start of the military buildup last summer. Others knew former classmates or even family members stationed in the gulf.
"It clarified or reinforced my perspective," said Stephen F. Murphy, 22, of Catonsville, who was serving on a cruiser in the Indian Ocean when Iraq invaded Kuwait. "For a lot of us, it reinforced our commitment."
On the other hand, the former midshipmen said they were not necessarily disappointed that the war was over before they graduated.
"I would not be disappointed if I never saw a shot fired in anger," said Ensign Murphy. "If war never breaks out, then I'll know I did my job."
Many in the class of 1991 will be headed for additional training before they become junior officers in the fleet.
Ensign Murphy, for instance, will teach sailing this summer before going to San Diego to learn surface warfare. Ensign Ritter will attend the Navy's diving school in Panama City, Fla.
Yesterday's ceremonies concluded a week of celebration in Annapolis for the graduates, who have survived the academy's rigorous requirements.
The partying will wrap up all too soon, however. In return for their education, the former midshipmen have agreed to serve at least five years in the Navy or Marine Corps.
"I look back on four years and I'm proud that I've made it this far and I'm proud of my classmates who have made it," said Mark A. Delahanty, 21, of Sykesville, who will serve the next 18 months in Orlando, Fla., preparing for nuclear submarine duty.
"Out of high school, it's hard to think about the commitment of four years [at the academy] and five years doing something dangerous," Ensign Delahanty said.
For William L. Wilson, 22, of Columbia, the academy's greatest challenge was swimming one mile in a swimming pool in under 40 minutes with his uniform on.
After a few failures, he swam the distance. For the next six months the former Navy soccer team captain will teach soccer at the academy before leaving for supply school in Athens, Ga.
"If one person can graduate from here, I knew I could do the same thing," Ensign Wilson said. "That sounds arrogant, but it helped me cope with a lot of things that came up. I knew I could go beyond my potential."