Leading by example, not bluster Change: The Navy chose this year's top midshipman for his philosophical ways and take-action approach.

May 17, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Reveille, the 6: 30 a.m. required wake-up, is an hour away, and most of his peers still sleep as his feet pound the dew-soaked grass and dawn breaks over the 153-year-old school.

It was another late night -- 1 a.m. -- but he forced himself awake four hours later for a pre-dawn run with classmates.

As his four years here come to an end, there still aren't enough hours. Sleep is one of the first casualties when you clamber to the top echelon of the Naval Academy. Friends say they still catch Andy Castiglione's eyes at half-mast as he walks to class.

Castiglione is the academy's brigade commander, the top midshipman among many exemplary peers. Part administrator, part class president and part drill sergeant, the brigade commander leads 4,000 leaders-in-training. The job exemplifies the Naval Academy's mission: to prepare students to be leaders by letting them lead.

When all 4,000 midshipmen march, he's out front barking orders. When dignitaries visit, he dines with them. And when classmates err, he takes the heat -- and then metes out punishment. He is the standard. And he's barely reached legal drinking age.

Short and soft-spoken, he's also a paradox. A philosopher's son in fatigues. A Rhodes scholar who jumps out of airplanes. A contemplative soldier.

"You can't just be a good soldier. You have to be a thinker as well," said Castiglione, who keeps a framed picture of soldier-philosopher Robert E. Lee, his hero, on his neat desk. "He didn't just want to fight. He thought a lot about why he fought."

Despite the buzz haircut and his attire -- baggy camouflage fatigues one day, formal uniform and a hip-side scabbard the next -- Castiglione's appearance and demeanor seem more a student's than a combatant's. But he is both: In October, he will begin a two-year Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University in England, to be followed by boot camp with the Marines.

'Different' since birth

The 21-year-old was born on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1976, in Warwick, R.I., the product of a seriously nonmilitary family, far more liberal than he is. "It makes for some interesting arguments at Christmas," said Castiglione (pronounced cast-il-YONE).

His older brother is an architect and both sisters are artists; his mother, Rosalind, is a nurse, and his father, Bob, teaches philosophy at Rhode Island College.

"Andy's been different since the day he was born," said his mother. "We got to the hospital and he came out a half-hour later -- feet first. That's kind of been the essence of Andy ever since. He jumps right in and does his thing."

Castiglione grew up playing with GI Joe action figures and fishing from oceanfront jetties with his best friend, his grandfather. They influenced his naval aspirations.

But his real inspiration came from a 1986 Naval Academy catalog a recruiter left after visiting his older sister, who briefly considered the academy. She chose a far different path -- Yale -- but Andy, age 8, held tight to the catalog, poring over pictures of pilots, scuba divers and men crawling through mud. He still has the dogeared booklet.

Castiglione's parents said they never imagined that a son of theirs would catch what they call "the bug." Yet, while they've supported him and are proud of him, they realize "there's a whole piece of his world that we don't belong in," Rosalind Castiglione said.

Andy said that was the point: to distinguish himself from his family, and "carve my own little existence."

"This is my world," he said. "This just seemed like a place that was for me."

Just right for the time

According to his superiors, he was right. His attributes as a philosopher-soldier are precisely what the academy -- and the military services -- want these days.

"I find Andy to be a very thoughtful person, very contemplative," said Adm. Charles R. Larson, the academy superintendent, who was the top midshipman of his class 40 years ago. "He's not a cheerleader type. He's the leadership-by-example type of guy."

Each fall and spring, a panel of school officials taps the person it considers the elite of the elite to serve as the semester's brigade leader (the student body is called the brigade).

In years past, said current and former midshipmen, many brigade commanders were "peacocks," drunk on the power of their rank. Surveys found a low regard among midshipmen for such leaders, prompting academy officials to seek a new standard of leadership.

"Our goal is to develop more enlightened leaders," said Rear Adm. Gary Roughead, the academy commandant (similar to a dean of students), who was brigade commander in 1973.

But when Castiglione landed in Annapolis in 1994, some observers felt the academy was adrift. Midshipmen were getting arrested and caught cheating on exams. Larson arrived for a second term as superintendent, bent on erasing the scandal-battered image and raising morale.

He did it partly by taking away some student liberties, but at the same time by giving students more responsibilities -- more opportunities to lead.

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