With graduation today, Mids thinking of war

Military: The Naval Academy's Class of 2004 is eager to face the challenges of conflict.

May 28, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Cambridge University wooed her with a full scholarship to study engineering. The University of California, Berkeley did the same.

But Midshipman Quinn Rinehart, who graduates today from the Naval Academy, didn't want a ticket out of war.

"I was being pulled in different directions," said Rinehart, who serves as brigade commander and is one of a handful of midshipmen to receive a scholarship to graduate school - a chance to delay her required five years of service in the Navy or Marine Corps. "But in the end, my heart told me what to do. We're at war, and I just want to get out there."

As 990 midshipmen graduate in Annapolis today - after a commencement address by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large.

Although the Class of 2003 was the first to graduate into a major conflict since Vietnam, these midshipmen are stepping into a war that has escalated significantly since May of last year, when President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq.

Rinehart, 22, is among 190 graduates bound for the Marine Corps. Comprising 19 percent of the class, they are the largest group of Marines the academy has graduated since Vietnam. Joining the Marines is often one of the fastest routes to conflict. Still, so many Mids requested the assignment that the academy sought - and was granted - 27 additional slots for the Class of 2004.

"An overwhelming number in our class are going Marines this year, and I think it's because everyone is eager to get out there," Rinehart said.

Although military colleges such as the Naval Academy have always prepared future military leaders for war, the current conflicts lend a heightened sense of urgency to this mission. Over the past year, the school invited veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to talk in the classroom about their experiences.

In recent weeks, the news has gotten more grim: the beheading of an American contract worker, several suicide bombings, the prisoner-abuse scandal and more Marines killed. It is this war that many graduates of the Naval Academy and the other four service academies will join.

Alumnus' view

Academy alumni who went from the classroom to the battlefield say they identify with this year's graduates.

"It's a different war than Vietnam - a different enemy and different terrain," said retired Maj. Gen. Terry Murray, who graduated from the academy in 1968, the same year as the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. "But what's very similar for these men and women going into the Marine Corps is that they will have a high probability of going to a war zone soon after training - and the challenges could be just as great for them as they were when I graduated."

Murray, executive vice president of the Naval Academy Alumni Association, said U.S. troops stationed in Iraq are likely to face escalating casualties.

"What these graduates now look to is a challenge and a dangerous environment," he said.

The dangers are apparent in the numbers - about 800 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, and more than 100 in Afghanistan, some of them recent graduates of the academy.

Still, Murray said, he thinks the dangers are difficult for recent graduates to grasp.

"I think they recognize it, but they don't dwell," he said. "When you're a young person, you feel like you're going to live forever. I expect as they lose someone here and there it will begin to dawn on them that this is serious stuff."

Asked whether they have any concerns about going to combat, several midshipmen, most interviewed in the presence of the academy's public affairs staff, insisted they did not.

`It's worth it'

"Although it has its risks, it's worth it," said Thayer Paxton, who plans to enter the Marines after graduating next year. Paxton said he had little interest in the Marines before the United States invaded Iraq, but is now set on the assignment. "I think it's the case with a lot of people - they are going into the Marines to be more directly involved in what the U.S. is doing."

The academy is also graduating about 200 Mids to surface-warfare assignments, and 23 to the Navy SEALS. Many of these graduates will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year. Other midshipmen will be assigned to aviation, special operations, submarines or naval staff - those jobs require training that delay possible deployment.

Jason Fernandez, who graduates today and will soon begin ship-management training, said he is worried about his classmates.

"I have a lot of good friends going into the Marines, who, in six or seven months, might be over there," Fernandez said. "Some of the recent graduates have been wounded and that makes it all hit home a little, but I'm still excited to graduate."

Shannon French, who has taught a class on the ethics of war at the academy since 1997, described her students' attitude toward war as "earnest."

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