Rigorous classes, duty beckon at Naval Academy

Education: As the school continues its tradition of grooming military leaders, combat duty has become a stark reality for the 4,300 midshipmen.

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

Since its founding in 1845, the Naval Academy has remained resolute in its mission: molding young men - and now women - into military leaders.

As the war in Iraq continues, however, that mission has taken on a greater sense of urgency.

For many of the 4,300 midshipmen who attend the scenic, 338-acre campus on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis, active duty is no longer a distant prospect. Instead, it is a stark reality.

"Shortly after commissioning, our graduates will find themselves on the bridge of a ship, in the control room of a submarine, in the cockpit of an aircraft or assaulting an enemy stronghold," said Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent. "To best prepare them, we want them to understand the realities of combat."

After a turbulent year, the academy is moving on from unwelcome distractions - the resignation of the former superintendent, several allegations of sexual assault and damage from Tropical Storm Isabel - and focusing on its strict, four-year program of moral, mental and physical development.

Ask any Mid and he or she will tell you that, compared with the experience at a non-military college, the academy's routine is rigorous.

Life at the school begins with plebe summer, a grueling, seven-week conditioning period designed to ease incoming students into a military education.

During the academic year, the Mids have little time for relaxing on the yard, socializing or sleeping in. A typical weekday begins at 5:30 a.m. with an optional workout, followed by a 6:30 a.m. wakeup call. The remainder of the day is filled with back-to-back classes, meals, sports and study hall. Unlike most college students, the Mids are strangers to all-nighters, required to turn off lights by midnight.

All midshipmen live in Bancroft Hall, a dormitory so huge that it boasts five miles of corridors and its own ZIP code. Mids are required to take at least 150 academy credits, 90 of which are required courses. To keep up with changing times, the academy alters its curriculum, adding an Information Technology major last year and an Arabic program next fall.

In exchange for a free education, midshipmen are required to serve a minimum of five years in the Navy or Marine Corps. Some of the school's most celebrated graduates include President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Sen. John McCain, four secretaries of the Navy and 54 astronauts.

In addition to its role as a groomer of future military men and women, the Naval Academy is one of the top tourist attractions in Annapolis, drawing more than 1 million visitors a year. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, sightseers can take a tour with guides at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center. Visitors are only allowed on the yard with photo identification, a security measure put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A must-see for many visitors is the academy's museum, which houses a naval heritage collection including impressive model ships and large-scale oil paintings of historic sea battles.

One of the museum's most prized possessions is the Worden sword, a Civil War-era treasure stolen from Bancroft Hall in 1931. The presentation sword - a gift to Admiral John L. Worden, commander of the warship Monitor - recently was recovered as a result of an FBI investigation.

Finally, no trip to the academy is complete without a stop at the chapel. The crypt underneath the domed structure holds the sarcophagus of John Paul Jones, one of the first American naval heroes.

Visitors who notice somewhat strange behavior on the yard can chalk it up to tradition. Rites of passage at the school include tossing pennies at the bronze Indian figurehead in front of Bancroft Hall for good luck on final exams and, for freshmen, the Commissioning Week rite of climbing a greased obelisk on the yard to topple the hat perched on its tip.

When they're not being hard-working, fun-loving college students, the Mids are preparing for what could be a call to combat duty after graduation. To do so, many of them take the opportunity to talk with veterans who recently have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lt. Konita Wilkes, a 1999 graduate of the academy, spent six months last year serving as an officer on a ship that launched cruise missiles into Iraq.

"I never thought I'd be in a wartime situation," said Wilkes. "War is not amazing, but it is an amazing experience to be on deployment."

Wilkes added that in peacetime, it's more difficult to interest the Mids in their reason for being at the academy.

"I think now, when we're at war, it's an ideal time to elevate their interest and we should take advantage of it," she said.

Midshipman Matthew O'Conner, a systems engineering major from Chestertown, said talking to veterans such as Wilkes has inspired him. O'Conner, who hopes to become a naval pilot after he graduates this year, said: "I'm looking forward to getting out and doing my job."

For more information about the Naval Academy, visit these Web sites:

The school: www.usna.edu

The visitor center: http://www.navyonline.com/

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