Gulf war hangs over academy's 'D-Day'


ANNAPOLIS -- For Midshipman William Dillon, this is D-Day. Decision day. The day he chooses the path of his Navy career.

Dillon and 970 other first classmen -- seniors -- were to rally at Bancroft Hall today to participate in the Naval Academy's annual Service Selection Day, its military job fair for future officers.

Each year, the graduating middies gather to pick from among 18 lines of duty, most of which have limited quotas. Class standing determines the order of selection.

Dillon, a soft-spoken native of Pittsburgh, is assured of getting his first choice. He ranks No. 2 in his class, with a near perfect 3.98 grade point average.

Dillon plans to train as a Navy pilot.

That same decision was made in the same hall seven years ago by Jeffrey Zaun, a Navy flier who was captured by Iraqi troops and whose bruised face haunts the Middies from the cover of Newsweek magazine.

The Persian Gulf war has produced a battleship-gray mood of seriousness that pervades this year's selection proceedings. Many members of the Class of 1991 have friends -- prior graduates -- who already are engaged in the war against Iraq.

Dillon says he felt "frustration and anger" at the enemy's exploitation of American fliers as prisoners of war, but no concern for his own vulnerability.

"It never occurred to me to think, 'Omigosh, what if it happens to me?' " says Dillon. "I just worried that it had to happen to those pilots.

"The war makes this job seem that much more important. But if there is never the occasion for my [training] to be put to the test, so much the better."

Brian Hussey of Long Valley, N.J., also has chosen to attend flight school as a Marine officer. He is vexed that he cannot accelerate his military training to help support U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Like most other seniors at the academy, Hussey faces many months of intense specialized study and will not see active duty until 1993.

"I don't want to sound like a John Wayne-type, but I wish I could be over there pulling my weight, instead of being here with my nose in a book. That's the dilemma," says Hussey, who ranks in the top 5 percent of his class.

"I could drive a truck to take food to the guys on the front line. But I know I need to stay here to learn how to do my part."

Stephen Murphy of Catonsville was expected to choose a career in surface warfare, which could place him on a cruiser as early as this fall. Murphy has no illusions about war at sea; his uncle died on a ship sunk in the Mediterranean during World War II.

Murphy, who ranks No. 8 in his class, believes the war has added depth to the decisions being made on Service Selection Day.

"We've all trained hard for four years, but the war has reinforced our commitment to serve in the Navy. And we've become more serious-minded as the conflict goes on," he says.

"Many of us know people who are there, and that tends to personalize the conflict a great deal."

Rachel Darr of Wheaton, Ill., agrees the war has changed the mood on campus.

"There is a certain amount of distance you have to keep from the news," says Darr, a candidate for Naval intelligence school. "The second day of the war, I was useless. I couldn't do any homework. I have too many friends who are going to the gulf, acquaintances from the class of '88 and '89.

"They aren't overjoyed about going, but they are looking forward to doing their jobs and practicing what they trained for against a worthy opponent."

In effect, that training began today for the Class of '91. Choosing one branch of naval service, particularly in wartime, cannot be an easy one.

"It's kind of like finding the right girl to marry," says Hussey. "There are a lot of nice ones out there, but you can only fall in love with one of them."

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