'Plebe priest' to see class of 1997 through

July 12, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

The Rev. Peter McGeory likes to think of himself as the Plebe priest. He arrived as the new Roman Catholic chaplain at the U.S. Naval Academy just a few weeks before induction day for the class of 1997, and he says he'll stick with those midshipmen.

"I'm beginning with their induction day, and I'll follow these plebes through every day of their career," he says. "I'll be with them here. I'm in the class of '97."

He says his philosophy of the post is to be available to the midshipmen who stream by his office in Bancroft Hall all day, every day.

"I try to tell them I'm here for them," says the 44-year-old priest, who has the rank of lieutenant commander. "This sometimes comes as a shock to them -- they don't believe it. But if they do, they're more receptive to what you have to offer."

Since he arrived in June, Father McGeory has felt himself to be something of a novice, he says. The high-profile job at the Academy is quite different from serving on a ship at sea. But a little anxiety only makes him more empathetic with frightened plebes.

Dealing with frightened sailors is nothing new to Father McGeory.

He was on board the USS Stark in 1987 when a missile hit the ship, killing several crew members.

"I started out on one of the first tours on the flagship for the Middle East during the Iraq war," he says. "We were dealing with families and crew there; kids who weren't expecting that sort of carnage. It was a very difficult time, the beginning of a long siege for us all in the Middle East."

Several years later, Father McGeory was sent to the USS Iowa after a gun turret explosion killed 47 crew members.

"They were looking for somebody who had experience dealing with the aftershocks of that, what psychologists call posttraumatic stress syndrome," he says.

The Iowa came back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs, but was sent to sea again within six months.

"It was a terrible time for the ship," says Father McGeory. "When we went out again, the investigation was still going on about what happened. Guys were still recovering from the terrible scene.

"There were 1,200 crew members on board when that deployment was called off the coast of Lebanon, and the crew was faced with the difficulty of having to shoot guns again which had been silenced after the explosion. Nobody knew at that point why there [had been] an explosion; there was much uncertainty."

The priest was on board other ships during the Persian Gulf War.

"These were dangerous situations, when we didn't know what was going to happen," he says. "It was a new episode since Vietnam for our young sailors and Marines; they were being shot at, and many had not expected that."

In each situation, as now at the Naval Academy, Father McGeory's job has been to counsel.

"As a priest, you're one of the few people who is an emotional resource for them, so you try to help them through it," he says. "You deal with the emotional side of life."

Father McGeory says he "always wanted to be a doctor," and can't really explain how he wound up in seminary instead. But he had become what he calls "a happy priest" in the archdiocese of New York when Cardinal John O'Connor, a former Chief of Chaplains for the Navy, selected him to fill a shortage of priests.

"I went kicking and screaming, but for the last eight years I've loved it," he says. "God acts in strange ways sometimes. The older I get, the less I believe in coincidence."

That doesn't mean there haven't been a few curious incidents since he arrived in Annapolis.

"I'm walking around here on a tour, and they're showing me my office," he says. "I walk in, and there's this crucifix and I've seen it before."

The 4-foot cross was made from a teak desk aboard the USS Iowa when it was decommissioned, something crew members sent to the academy because "we thought we should send some thing unique to [the ship] someplace they'd be appreciated," Father McGeory explains. "It was really one of the greatest ships the Navy ever built, a World War II battleship."

And in the chapel is a leaded, stained-glass window with the Iowa's seal, which also had been sent to the Academy.

"I said, 'Did you guys plant this stuff so I'd feel at home?' " recalls Father McGeory.

His own job, now, is to make the midshipmen feel at home, he says.

"Initially it's hard until you get your feet on the ground," he says"On another ship I'd know the ground and the turf. This is a unique assignment, and the responsibility is high, so I can identify very much with the plebes."

But as time goes by, he says, "we all get into a routine, and then the real challenges emerge. You get down to it."

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