The grim realities of war

Instructors: Veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq return to the Naval Academy to impart the unpleasant truths about combat.

April 16, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

For Capt. Mary Beth Bruggeman, a Naval Academy instructor and company officer who returned recently from Iraq, the questions have become all too familiar.

What was it like over there? How long did you go without a shower? Where did you sleep?

As Bruggeman answers, she notices the midshipmen shift forward in their chairs. Then, inevitably, someone asks: What was it like for your Marines to see dead people?

With that, the room falls silent.

"Anytime I bring up death, dying or numbers killed, they get really somber," said Bruggeman, who served as an airbase operations commander in the war-torn country. "But that's what they all want to know about."

A 1999 graduate of the academy, Bruggeman is one of more than 40 veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan currently teaching at the school. Military academies have long tried to prepare students for war, but the informal sessions have taken on more urgency as unrest in Iraq spreads and the country braces for a prolonged conflict.

With more than 950 midshipmen preparing to graduate -- many of whom could soon see combat -- these veterans say it is their duty to relate the realities of war.

"I think it's so important for anyone who's been in combat to make sure that the generations who are going into it understand what war is," said Bruggeman, a Marine. "I mean, I was all pumped up, but a day after the shooting dies down, no one is pumped up anymore. ... I tell my Mids that they have to be mature enough to understand that combat is not fun and games and that someone might not come home."

It's a grave message, but one the Naval Academy is intent on conveying, particularly at a time when seniors assigned to the Marine Corps or to the Navy as fighter pilots will likely be called on to serve. More than 680 U.S. servicemen and women have died in the Iraq conflict.

Some of these conversations take place in the classroom, where recently returned veterans weave their experience into seminars. Others take place in the lunchroom or the halls, where students are encouraged to approach veterans with questions and concerns.

"To best prepare [graduates], we want them to understand the realities of combat," said Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, in a statement.

As the war on terror continues, even younger Mids expect to see combat soon after they graduate.

"Before Sept. 11, it was if you go to war you might," said 20-year-old Christina Hayes, a chemistry major from Atlanta. "Then after Sept. 11, it was when you go, you will."

The Naval Academy is not the only military college calling on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to share their combat experience. At the Air Force Academy and the Citadel, faculty members who have served in either war are encouraged to speak in class. At West Point, recent graduates on duty talk to students through video teleconferences.

Although mentally preparing students for combat has always been a part of the military college curriculum, experts note that the United States is engaged in a different kind of war -- one that even the most decorated veterans of World War II or Vietnam do not know.

"The combat experiences of my generation are different than what these students will face," said Col. Robert Gordon, a 1979 graduate of West Point who is a professor of American politics there. "That's why it's so essential to provide examples of recent grads who are doing the kind of things that these grads will do. Their experience will be terrorism -- an asymmetric war in which nothing is black or white."

It's a war in which the enemy forms no front lines or fixed military structure -- a war in which the attacks are often carried out by indiscernible forces.

"The Mids today are graduating into the war on terror," said Cmdr. Robert Proano, a Navy pilot and 1986 academy graduate. "They see the war on TV, but my job is to make that connection between what they see and the reality of it."

Proano added that most of the midshipmen don't realize how "vicious" the combat was in Afghanistan, where U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban. More than 500 U.S. troops have died in that conflict, which is still being waged with the help of coalition forces.

"I left the war and came straight here, and my primary job is to educate them on what I learned," Proano said.

As an ethics teacher, flying team coach and operations commander for the Bancroft Hall dormitory, Proano makes a point of relaying the details of his experience flying combat missions over Afghanistan.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Proano was stationed on a ship in the Arabian Sea, headed for Iraq to carry out a mission in the "no fly" zone. Hours after the attacks in New York and Washington, he anxiously awaited orders while his ship steamed in circles.

"We knew we were going to war with someone, we just didn't know who," said Proano, a 40-year-old father from Annapolis.

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