It's a gentler academy for 1993 plebes Less yelling, more 'positive leadership'

August 08, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

He slowly descends the stairs of Bancroft Hall, a glistening sword strapped to his side and a ready command for this sea of plebes, the newest crop at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Three years ago, Regimental Commander Todd Huber was part of that nervous flock. He was called "maggot" and forced to do sit-ups on the hard floor of Bancroft Hall. He lost 10 pounds by answering the incessant questions of upperclassmen instead of eating during meals. And that was when they said plebe year had mellowed.

Now the Class of 1997, taking its first, tentative steps in the heat of Annapolis, will see the final, harsh vestiges of plebe year fade away, much like sailing ships, rum rations and the lash, when the academic year begins this month.

What some graduates argue is necessary to build an officer has been dismissed as "negative leadership" by Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent.

But the changes have spurred a harsh debate, leaving some midshipmen, officers and alumni wondering if the Naval Academy still will be able to produce officers with the mettle for combat.

"You can get short-term results through fear and intimidation," the admiral explained in an interview. "Long term, that person is not going to develop to the fullest potential."

Plebe year helped weed out "those psychologically unsuited to command in the armed services," said academy historian E. B. Potter.

Capt. James M. Brick, a plebe in 1968 and now the officer in charge of the plebe class, recalls a year of constant yelling and screaming, "almost physical punishment" for the slightest error.

Some academy graduates didn't have nightmares about jungle combat, said one Vietnam-era graduate; their sleep was disturbed by memories of plebe year.

James B. Stockdale, a retired vice admiral from the class of 1947 and Ross Perot's running mate, said that he survived eight years in a Hanoi prison camp by enduring the first year at the Naval Academy.

"I thought plebe year turned out to be one of the most helpful nudges I'd had in a lifetime of preparation for military challenges, particularly those of prison," he later wrote.

Admiral Lynch said his aim is to build leaders, "not just survivors."

Among the changes, plebes will no longer:

* Face routine yelling and screaming, or physical training (PT) for the smallest infraction.

* "Chop" or double-time and make precise military turns ("square corners") in Bancroft Hall, the cavernous dorm, after the spring break in March.

* Endure strict questioning from upperclassmen during meals. Instead, the upperclassmen will lead a discussion, much like a wardroom on a ship. Times will be set aside for professional training, allowing more time to focus on academic study.

Even the name is different. What once was called "plebe indoctrination" will become the "Fourth Class Midshipmen Development Program."

It is a continuation of a philosophical change that began two years ago. Academy officials substituted "positive leadership" for the high-volume verbal barrage that long had characterized plebe summer, the seven-week indoctrination into academy life.

Admiral Lynch, a 1964 academy graduate, said that after three decades in the Navy, he has come to a realization: Yelling and screaming do not build an officer.

"You develop that person," said Admiral Lynch, a former commander of a destroyer group. "That is a heck of a lot tougher than screaming and yelling and we're going to drive you out of here."

An upperclassmen now will be a "positive leader," defined by the plan as "a moralist, jurist, philosopher, teacher and steward."

When Admiral Lynch outlined his plebe year philosophy this month with the Naval Academy Board of Visitors, he predicted that the plan would produce some flak from alumni. It did.

Webb favors stressful training

"I really disagree with him. I don't have a problem with anybody getting in anybody's face," said James Webb, a 1968 academy graduate and former Navy secretary.

A decorated Marine officer in Vietnam, he long has complained that the academy has loosened its rigorous standards. Plebe year has one purpose, said Mr. Webb: removing those who don't belong.

Some critics asked not to be identified.

The new plebe program is "politically correct horse " snapped one Vietnam-era graduate.

A 1982 graduate viewed the changes as an "overreaction" to the infamous Tailhook episode, in which Navy fliers sexually assaulted women in a Las Vegas hotel hallway, and the case of Gwen Dreyer, a sophomore who left the academy in 1989 after she was handcuffed to a urinal and jeered by male midshipmen.

Others welcome the changes, saying they are long overdue.

"The most important type of leadership you can give to a young plebe is a positive role model," declared Lt. Gen. Charles Krulak, commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Va. Similar techniques have been used there for the past several years.

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