Seconds short, Mid bitter over expulsion

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

Frank Shannon was 20 seconds short.

Twenty seconds from graduation at the U.S. Naval Academy, from his tour of duty on the USS James E. Williams and from a career as a naval officer.

A former offensive lineman with shoulders that span almost 3 feet, Shannon had struggled with the academy's distance-run requirement of 1.5 miles in less than 10 minutes, 30 seconds.

He usually made it, although rarely on the first try. In January, however, his best time was 10 minutes, 50 seconds, and in March he was expelled from the academy for failing the test.

When his friends throw their hats into the air tomorrow, Shannon will be pulling another shift at a home improvement store.

He has invested two years in the Navy, one in the academy's preparatory school and four at the school itself. But he has no degree and no Navy commission, and he owes the U.S. government more than $127,000 for his education. Students pay no tuition unless they are expelled.

"It doesn't seem feasible," said Shannon of Middle River. "I'm 24 and getting married with all this debt and no degree, after all this work. What do I have to show for it?"

Another source of frustration is that the academy's standards are higher than the Navy's or the other service academies'. Shannon's time would have easily met the Navy requirement for a junior officer of his age.

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., gives cadets 14 minutes to run 1.5 miles. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Army have the same standard, 16:34 for two miles for a 24-year-old, which would have given Shannon plenty of wiggle room.

Unlike midshipmen, West Point cadets are given multiple opportunities to retake the test, even past the graduation date.

The Naval Academy declined to comment specifically about Shannon's case, but Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt wrote in a March letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski that Shannon "failed to display the desire to meet the standard."

Academy officials also said all midshipmen are treated the same and that any failings are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Anyone who believes the process is unfair is "incorrect," said Marine Col. David Fuquea, deputy commandant of midshipmen. "This institution is responsible for training graduates who immediately will be committed to the global war on terror," he said. "We cannot afford to send someone out to lead sailors and Marines that has not met the standard morally, mentally and physically."

Since 2001, 66 midshipmen have been expelled for failing physical tests.

David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, questioned the academy's inflexibility and wondered why it won't allow Shannon to graduate and pay back the government.

"If he's willing to repay the taxpayers' cost of his education," Segal said, "my inclination would be to recommend he get the degree."

Shannon is a 1999 graduate of Eastern Technical High School in Essex, where he was class president, captain of the football and wrestling teams, an Eagle Scout and a member of the National Honor Society.

More than 50 universities expressed interest in the standout lineman. The University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii offered him full scholarships, but he turned them all down to go to the Naval Academy, even though it had rejected his application.

He enlisted in the Navy's nuclear power training program in Goose Creek, S.C., where sailors gain the technical know-how to serve on submarines and aircraft carriers.

After a year, Shannon moved to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to help train new enlistees in nuclear engineering. At age 19, he was offered a teaching position and a promotion to a midlevel rank, with a $50,000 bonus.

He turned that down to go to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., hoping for a chance to go to Annapolis.

A year later, the academy accepted him, and he arrived on campus as a plebe in 2002.

Shannon had been slated to join the varsity football squad, but new head coach Paul Johnson had a different vision for the team, and Shannon was not a part of it. As an athlete, Shannon would not have been required to meet the academy's distance-run requirement until just before graduation.

In addition to the run, male midshipmen must do at least 65 sit-ups in two minutes and 45 pushups in two minutes, tests that were no problem for Shannon.

Lithe younger men and women make up most of the brigade of midshipmen. Shannon is 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighs 245 pounds and can bench-press that weight 12 times.

Midshipmen must complete a physical education program that includes swimming, boxing and martial arts. They also have to play a sport on the varsity, club or intramural level.

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