Plebe intimidation yields to inspiration

Discipline: In the more civil climate at the Naval Academy, erring plebes are more likely to write an essay than drop and give 20.

July 28, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Dave Crabbe expected pushups when he came to the Naval Academy. And it was just a few days into the summer initiation for newcomers when a bellowing upperclassman ordered him to the hard dormitory floor and made him muscle out 20.

Now, three years later, it's Crabbe's turn to whip plebes into shape. But he has been dishing out a different sort of discipline. Instead of push-ups, he recently asked a group of erring plebes to write an essay on being an American.

"The end result was that people were looking into themselves," he says. Some even cried.

A new mood is taking root at the Naval Academy, where the fraternity-house-style harassment that spawned the country's first anti-hazing law has given way to a climate of civility, polished manners and a sensitivity to frayed teen-age feelings.

The latest tradition tossed overboard is the "spot correction" - the use of push-ups and sit-ups as instant punishment for a minor rules violation. The practice, famous for the phrase "Drop and give me 20," has been written off as a relic worthy of joining the cat-o'-nine-tails in the graveyard of Navy disciplinary tools.

Another word academy visitors won't hear this summer is kill. When the new commandant, Col. John Allen, overheard a plebe platoon shout it in unison a couple weeks ago, he ordered the word purged from their vocabulary. He said it was too early in their careers to think about the "kill piece" of military training.

"What we've done is we've removed the cruelty," says the school's spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Spann. "We've learned over the years that you do not need to be cruel in order to produce a combat-ready warrior."

`Treated very fairly'

The academy has already dismissed four upperclassmen from plebe-training jobs this month after a plebe complained about being screamed at and scolded too harshly.

Allen, a tough-talking Marine who scrapped the spot correction this summer, says that preparing the next generation of naval officers for combat should not cross the line into humiliation. He wants upperclassmen to lead by example, not fear.

"We never want to denigrate someone, robbing them of their dignity," says Allen, whose job is comparable to dean of students at a civilian college. "We want parents to understand that when they give us their children, they will be treated very fairly."

The changes have pleased most freshmen and their parents, who say that plebe summer is tough enough without an extra dollop of punitive push-ups, sit-ups and flutter kicks. But some alumni wonder whether the latest crop of fresh-faced teen-agers is being adequately groomed for the pressures and horrors of war.

"Human dignity is important, but I worry that we're so concerned about someone's dignity ... that when they're in a stressful situation, they're very dignified but they fall apart," says John S. "Scott" Redd, a retired vice admiral and fleet commander who graduated in 1966.

Scott L. Sears, a retired rear admiral from the same class, recalls being ordered to hold a rifle in front of him until his arms gave way, among other physical penalties. "It disciplined my mind to respect authority and to place my trust in my seniors instantaneously," he says.

But not everyone is misty-eyed about the past.

Thomas V. Draude, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general and 1962 graduate, says he got little from physical ordeals meted out as discipline.

"Part of the difficulty for many alums," he says, "is the business of `Gee, if it was good enough for me and I had to go through it, then so should everyone else.' Based on that, we'd still have midshipmen lashed to the mast."

16 hours of work

Still, plebe summer - the school's six weeks of freshman indoctrination - remains one of the most demanding rites of initiation for an American teen-ager. The prospective officers are awakened before dawn and spend the next 16 hours sweating through long workouts, learning to march, sail and fire rifles, and absorbing classroom lessons on honor and ethics.

In harried moments between activities, they are expected to memorize not only each week's mess hall menu, but an encyclopedia of rules - from Navy doctrine to how to arrange books on desks (tall to small) and clothes in closets (dark to light, left to right).

But in other ways, plebe summer has gradually become less boot camp and more summer camp.

The physical education department began grouping plebes by ability last year so that slower ones can run and work out at the their own pace without holding back faster plebes.

At meals, upperclassmen no longer submit plebes to sharp questioning on school trivia. Instead, they engage them in casual conversation about what sports they played in high school and what they'd like to do in the military.

A new etiquette program teaches plebes social graces, from penning thank-you notes to guiding a foxtrot partner across a dance floor.

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