War in their future, Mids choose Marines

More Naval Academy seniors are making the Corps their first preference, lately more than it can take

March 25, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

When it came time for Jake Dove, a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, to decide how he would fulfill his required military duty after graduation, there was no question about it: Marine Corps all the way.

"In my eyes it's a perfect community," said Dove, an Annapolis High School graduate. "The idea of being a platoon leader in charge of guys that have done two, three tours in Iraq already, when I haven't been over there - that's an awesome responsibility. I'm eager to take it on."

Despite a war that has entered its fourth year with mounting casualties and waning public support, more and more midshipmen at the Annapolis military college are volunteering for the Marines when asked to choose how they will fulfill the five-year commitment required of all academy graduates.

When the assignments were made official last month for the 992 members of the class of 2006, 209 were placed as officers with the Corps - the most in the school's 161-year history. And more would have done so if there were enough openings: an additional 45 who sought the Marines were assigned to other duty when the allotment was filled.

Naval aviation remains the most popular choice among midshipmen, but a growing interest in Marine duty - in spite of its dangers - has been under way for several years, even as applications to the academy have dropped sharply in recent years, a development blamed by some on the Iraq war.

Three years ago, 162 slots were set aside for the Marines and the academy ended up turning away some applicants. The number of slots was increased the next year, to 195, and the Corps drew 207 applicants. Last year the cap was set at 207; more midshipmen were turned away.

Dove said the threat of being hurt or killed in Iraq is "always in the back of my head, and I'm sure it's the same for everybody going in the Marines."

"It's a consideration, something you have to prepare yourself for mentally," he said. "But this is the way I want to serve my country and I'm not going to let anything get in the way of what I've always wanted to do, which is to lead men in combat."

In a recent presentation to a civilian oversight board, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy's superintendent, said midshipmen are increasingly asking to go to the front lines or "where the action is," so they can "prove themselves."

"There are many more that want to be Marines than we can take," he said to the academy's Board of Visitors, which includes members of Congress, retired military officials and educators. "There are many more that want to be SEALS than we can take. It's very heartwarming to see the determination of these young people and what they want to do."

Surveys the academy conducts of midshipmen show that the upturn in Marine interest will continue for the classes of 2007, 2008 and 2009, with more than 300 current plebes declaring their interest in the Marine Corps, more than in surface warfare or submarines.

More than 650 Marines have been killed since the Iraq war began three years ago this month, but that has not deterred midshipmen from becoming Marines. Academy officials joke that the Marine Corps might have finally eclipsed naval aviation or submarines, both of which were popularized by Hollywood in Top Gun and The Hunt for Red October.

The appeal of the Marines has stretched beyond the Naval Academy. While the Army and its reserve components have struggled to meet recruiting goals during the Iraq conflict, the Marine Corps has not.

Most academy officials believe interest is high for patriotic reasons - the phenomenon began not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Others, including midshipmen, said the enthusiasm could be part of a common trend in wartime at the nation's service academies, where young students have been eager to bolster their military credentials with combat experience.

Having a surplus of mids who want to be Marines has been a change from the Vietnam era. In 1968, the Marine Corps failed to meet its quota for the first time in academy history.

In the 2006 class, 349 mids were assigned to naval aviation as pilots or navigators; 270 chose to "go SWO," academy parlance for working on surface warships; 88 went to subs; 21 will train for the SEALs - the Navy's elite fighting force. Fifteen went to special operations such as explosives disposal, 10 will attend medical school and the rest will fill a variety of military billets, including intelligence, civil engineering and information warfare.

Midshipmen are asked to list a first, second and third choice for their duty preference. A service board makes the final decision based on the preferences, order of merit or class standing, academic qualifications, physical requirements and the needs of each service branch. The students learned of their assignments in November, and the selections were made official last month in an annual ceremony where the mids find out the specifics of their assignment, such as the ship on which they will serve.

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