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Induction Day at Naval Academy a blur of commands, requirements

Armed ForcesDefenseUnited States Naval AcademyU.S. MilitaryU.S. Army

The plebes looked stunned.

Under a relentless barrage of commands, most of them bellowed, some 1,200 members of the U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 2015 ran the gantlet of induction Thursday, a process that by any definition appeared to be an ordeal. In true military manner, however, most of the freshmen mustered a measure of stoicism.

"It's good for me," said Michael Gerritsen, 18, from Dallas, who was breathing heavily as he waited in one of the many lines he would endure during the course of the morning. "I'm a little nervous, but I think I'll do good."

Still, getting past the first day seemed a lot to handle, given the rapid-fire process of checking into the Annapolis campus, picking up uniforms and instruction books, learning to salute smartly and stand at attention, and submitting to haircuts. And being shouted at.

There was also the matter of being forced to say "sir" or "ma'am" before and after every sentence the plebes uttered, a requirement that, for many, was at the very least confusing.

"Every year, there are people who won't last the first day," said Ensign David Ritchey, 22, who recently graduated from the academy as an officer and vividly recalls going through induction four years ago. "Some of them come in knowing absolutely nothing about what they're getting into. The reality sort of hits them."

Ritchey, a native of Huntingdon, Pa., who is headed to flight school at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., said the emotion he most remembers from his first day is anxiety: "You're sort of in a state of shock. You have strangers yelling at you, you have all these things to remember, and you're carrying 50 pounds of gear you just got. You've got a swarm of people coming after you, and you don't know who to listen to. They make you realize you're not a civilian anymore."

As he spoke, Ritchey watched Midshipman 1st Class Matthew Adams holler into the right ear of a plebe who had just emerged, slightly dazed, from a head shearing.

"Put your trash under your left arm like a football and keep moving!" Adams yelled, using the term "trash" to describe the freshman's personal possessions. Within minutes, the hapless plebe would be relieved of jeans and T-shirt, issued a new white uniform, shoes and Dixie Cup hat, and told to look sharp. Each plebe was given about $4,000 worth of clothes, equipment and other merchandise, most of which they toted around in large bundles slung over their shoulders.

"It's a little bit stressful," said Jillian Benson, 17, from Boston, as she lined up at yet another checkpoint. She said she had been inspired by her brother's admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Army's counterpart to Annapolis. "We have a family rivalry going on," she said, "but he was happy for me to do this."

Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, who graduated from the academy in 1974 and is its 61st superintendent, took a break from monitoring Thursday's activities to say the induction process "is designed to take folks from every corner of the nation and provide a necessary foundation for a successful Navy career — and it all starts here today."

Miller acknowledged that the experience of induction is "intense and busy" for the freshmen. "Even for me, it's still a blur," he said. "It's understandable that our young students would be a little apprehensive, and that's true of every university. We're not here to teach them how to be afraid; we're here to teach them courage — mental, physical and moral courage."

For the plebes, also known as midshipmen fourth class, the day's high point was taking the oath of office — watched by their families — during a 6 p.m. ceremony outside Bancroft Hall, a huge dormitory that houses 4,500 people and will be their home for four years.

During their studies, students are paid about $100 a month and get just 12 hours off a week, on Saturdays from noon to midnight. First-year students may not watch television, listen to music or have a car, although they are provided computers. They may not be married or have dependents.

Those who make it through the four years — roughly 85 percent of those signing up Thursday, by the Navy's estimates — will emerge with bachelor's degrees in science and a thorough understanding of the Navy.

There were more than 19,000 applicants — almost 4,500 of them women — for the academy's class of 2015, a record for the institution. Of the 1,232 who were admitted, 238 are female, 133 Hispanic and 126 African-American. There were freshmen from Lebanon, Bangladesh, Mexico, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

"I'm excited and proud of my son," said Tom Connor, an Army veteran from Cary, N.C., whose youngest child, Seth, 17, was being inducted. "The opportunity to learn and serve and help in this environment — it'll help him be the best he can be. Everyone should serve if they can. There are some things that are worth fighting for. No one picks on the tough guy."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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