Last night, nearly 1,000 midshipmen at the Naval Academy marked an annual milestone for seniors: service selection.
It's the moment when, after a rigorous four years, the soon-to-be officers receive their marching orders, specifically what training camp, submarine, flight school or ship they will report to after graduating in May.
Typically, it's a night of celebration.
But this year, with the war in Iraq and the recent loss of several academy graduates, it was also a night of apprehension and anxiety.
"There's some celebration, but it's more of a realization," said Matt Wilckens, 22, of Annapolis, who will train to be a pilot for the Marine Corps. "I think we all realize that we're not invincible."
In the past three years, 10 academy graduates have been killed in action or operations in what the Pentagon calls the global wars on terror.
"We're hearing about people a couple years out who have died, and it brings it home," said Aaron Polanco, 21, of Wimberley, Texas. "But we know what we're getting into. We know it comes with the territory."
Polanco is one of more than 200 Marines the academy will graduate this year, the most since the Vietnam War. Those graduates, in addition to the 251 assigned to surface warfare, could be among the first in their graduating class to see action.
Lawrence Heyworth, a 21-year-old Annapolis resident, said his service assignment - as a surface-warfare officer on a ship that could be sent to waters off Iraq - reminds him that his plebe year at the academy was marked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Before that, people looked at America as a place of peace, and then we immediately shifted to a state of war," Heyworth said. "We had more than a year after that to change our minds, which is why tonight is not a leap of faith, it's a reaffirmation."
The Sept. 11 attacks prompted a surge in applications to the Naval Academy, but they have tailed off as the war has continued.
Applications for the Class of 2009 fell 20 percent compared with those the year before, a drop mirrored at the nation's other military colleges that some experts attribute to increasing combat casualties.
Still, interest among midshipmen in the Marines apparently remains high although more than 450 Marines have died in the Iraq war.
The number of service assignments (also called billets) that the midshipmen compete for is set by the Navy and Marine Corps.
Responding to increased interest in the Marines, the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, asked military leaders last year to increase the number of Marine billets, which had been set at about 16 percent of the class. In response, Marine Corps officials increased the share to about 19 percent for the Classes of 2004 and 2005.
Academy officials say competition among midshipmen for the most popular service assignments is tough.
This year, about 97 percent of the seniors - or First Classmen in academy parlance - received their first or second choices, which is determined by merit order, a class rank based on factors including grades, athletics, professional performance and evaluations by their professors and peers.
In addition to surface warfare and the Marines, the most coveted assignments this year included naval aviation, despite training delays in Pensacola, Fla., where some hopeful pilots are waiting months to begin flight school. That delay is the result of damage from last fall's hurricanes and the retiring of several squadrons.
"From what we've heard, Pensacola is doing a lot to put our year back on schedule," said Stephanie Hoffman, 22, of North Easton, Mass., who is bound for the training school. "And even if I have to wait a couple months, that's fine because it's what I want to do."
Hoffman and fellow aviator Jackie Sinnett, 22, joked that Top Gun, the 1986 film starring Tom Cruise as a pilot in advanced combat training, is still commonly quoted by midshipmen.
"I can't believe I get paid to fly planes, hopefully off the deck of a ship," said Mike Mabrey, 22, of Liberty, Miss., who will head to flight training school after completing a master's degree in aerospace engineering. "It will be incredibly fun, and incredibly challenging. What a great career."
Other assignments for graduates include the submarine service, the SEALS, Special Operations, the Supply Corps, civil engineering and intelligence.