More Mids becoming Marines

Interest rises as Corps' Afghanistan role grows

March 03, 2009|By David Wood | David Wood,David.wood@baltsun.com

Midshipman William Selby surveyed the options for graduates of the Naval Academy and passed over ship officer, aircraft pilot and submariner for arguably the most dangerous selection of all: a career in the Marine Corps.

"An easy choice," the Frederick native said. "I wanted to be where the action is."

Selby, 21, is one of 273 first classmen, or "firsties," who will receive commissions in the Marine Corps this year. It is the highest number in recent Naval Academy history, accounting for more than 25 percent of the graduating class of just over 1,000.

The surge comes even as U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan deepens, with 8,000 Marines being rushed into an increasingly deadly fight.

U.S. commanders believe the Afghanistan war will last five years or longer, and midshipmen headed for the Marine Corps acknowledge the likelihood of experiencing close combat.

"That was a selling point for me - a big test of your leadership and character," Selby said.

Traditionally, the Marine Corps has taken about 17 percent of each year's graduating class. But in 2004, with the war in Afghanistan under way and a new conflict launched with the invasion of Iraq, the Navy and Marine Corps negotiated an agreement to allow 20 percent of the class to choose a commission in the Marine Corps.

A new agreement this year allows the Marines to select even more - one of every four midshipmen.

Despite the demands and danger, getting into a slot as a Marine officer remains highly competitive.

"We have always had more who were clamoring to come in than could," said Thomas L. Wilkerson, a retired Marine major general and member of the academy's Class of 1967.

There is a mystery in how the crowd of Marine-oriented midshipmen is narrowed down to those who are chosen.

Veterans point out that academic standing alone doesn't guarantee selection; some midshipmen with lackluster academic records went on to become legendary Marine heroes. Demonstrated leadership and other capabilities count, said Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, an academy spokesman. Marine instructors and advisers at the academy serve as talent scouts.

"It's a magical process," said Warren Kurz, a 23-year-old midshipman from Millersville who was selected to be commissioned a Marine second lieutenant.

Kurz was set on enlisting in the Marines right out of high school. "I grew up watching John Wayne movies," he said. "My brother joined the Marines and is a jet pilot." But his father talked him into going to college. He was accepted into the academy but first he was sent away to prep school for a year.

The admissions board "thought I would benefit from a little more maturity - and I'm still working on that," Kurz said.

In October 2006, his buddy from Severna Park High School, Eric. W. Herzberg, a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal, was killed in combat in Fallujah, Iraq

"If anything, that motivated me even more" to succeed at the academy and as a Marine officer, Kurz said. "I want to pick up where he left off."

Kurz, Selby and their classmates who made similar choices will head to Quantico, Va., in May for six months of grueling training to be ground combat commanders.

Many could land on the front lines soon afterward.

Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, has urged that Marines take the major ground combat role in Afghanistan, which could send tens of thousands of additional Marines into the fight.

The 8,000 Marines ordered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama will join 2,000 Marines already fighting in southern Afghanistan, part of an overall force of about 38,000 American military personnel.

The Marine Corps' growing demand for midshipmen is being driven in part by its expansion from about 180,000 to 202,000 Marines. That increase of 22,000 is almost complete and includes a requirement for about 2,400 new officers.

The Corps is competing for those officers with the Army, which is adding 74,200 soldiers to its ranks to reach 547,000.

The number of mids accepted into the Marines and Navy communities such as submarines, aviation and surface ships depends on the needs of the services and, in the case of the Marines, negotiated agreement.

The growth of the Corps and the shrinkage of the Navy - from about 592,600 in 1989 to 331,500 today - has required a readjustment.

"We thought we should be getting our fair share, although the Navy might call it something else, to reflect our greater percentage within the Department of the Navy," said Lt. Col. Bill Tosick, a Marine Corps manpower planner.

This year's class of 1,085 graduating midshipmen includes 277 who will become surface ship officers, 319 who will train as Navy pilots or flight crew, 120 submariners, 41 SEALs and other special operations officers, 15 in the medical corps, and others in intelligence, oceanography, information warfare and other specialties.

Overall, academy graduates make up about 13 percent of Marine Corps officers. Most of the others are commissioned after college and officer candidate school, according to Marine Corps data.

The other military services harvest an even higher proportion of their officers from the service academies: about 20 percent of Navy and Air Force officers graduated from their respective academies. Fifteen percent of Army officers are graduates of West Point.

Whether that distinction helps in their careers is a matter of stiff debate within the military.

"In the Marine Corps, we have not seen any indicator that academy people do better in promotions or necessarily stay longer" in the service, said Tosick.

"Pretty much, wherever you come from, the Basic School brings you down to parade rest and you become a leader of Marines."

Being an academy graduate, he said, "is not something that puts an asterisk by your name."

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