Gulf war veterans among 1,131 midshipmen WAR IN THE GULF


A headline in yesterday's editions of The Sun stated incorrectly the number of incoming plebes at the U.S. Naval Academy.

, The correct figure is 1,132.

ANNAPOLIS -- James S. Bates flew 20 combat missions for the U.S. Navy, blowing up mines, dodging gunfire and capturing Iraqi soldiers. He won numerous decorations for his acts of heroism including the prestigious Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

So what is he doing as a plebe, the lowliest of the low among midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy?

"I wonder about it myself sometimes," confessed Mr. Bates, a former petty officer second class with three years and 10 months of enlisted experience.

"As a Naval air crewman I sat in the back of the helicopter and I only got to sit up front with the officers a few times. Sitting up front is where I want to be."

Yesterday, Mr. Bates joined 1,131 other potential Navy and Marine Corps officers as members of the Naval Academy's incoming class of 1995 on Induction Day. It was the beginning of Plebe Summer, the institution's six-week, boot-camp-like freshman indoctrination.

Called "I-Day" at the academy, it was the first and likely easiest of the grueling 16-hour days of rigorous physical and mental training that lie ahead for the plebe class.

For the first time since the Vietnam War, a fair number of combat veterans were sprinkled among the fresh-faced high school graduates entering the academy.

While unsure of the exact number, officials said many of the 120 active duty personnel who joined the plebe class had served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

"We have always had people with fleet experience coming here and that is always a plus for the education of midshipmen," said Capt. Michael D. Haskins, the academy's commandant of midshipmen.

"As combat veterans, they add an extra element to their classmates -- 'Hey, listen, there is a reason for this.' That's really what this training is all about."

Mr. Bates, 21, a native of Woodbury, Conn., spent much of the Persian Gulf war blowing up mines that threatened the fleet.

He won his Navy and Marine Corps Medal for rescuing four crewmen from a British helicopter downed in the Mediterranean Sea in 1989.

After surviving those experiences, Mr. Bates said he is quite capable of taking an upperclassman's orders -- no matter what the volume -- on such subjects as making beds and folding clothes.

"I let it roll off my back and the next day it'll be gone," said Mr. Bates, who also is among the oldest of the plebes. His August birthday is one month shy of the age cutoff.

"I thought about ROTC, but I think I need the discipline of the academy," he added.

Fellow plebe Harry L. Gardner was awarded a Purple Heart after helping his 72-member Marine company capture 244 Iraqi soldiers three days before the ground campaign. The then-corporal was injured when a surrendering Iraqi soldier stepped on a land mine.

"I wouldn't call it [combat experience] an advantage but I think of it more as a heads up," said Mr. Gardner, 20, of Woodbridge, Va., who suffered shrapnel wounds in his legs.

"I know what's going to happen. I came here to become an officer, and I know I have to put up with some harassment."

Actually, "harassment" was not the description of choice among academy leadership to describe the plebe experience yesterday. Positive leadership" was. Officials talked about toning down their traditionally hard-nosed approach to training.

Greeting his first plebe class since taking office in December, Captain Haskins said he will tolerate "no mindless yelling" at plebes this summer and prefers a more sensitive environment.

But the commandant conceded that to promote "good order and discipline" there may still be some "selective yelling" at plebes.

"It really isn't any kinder and gentler" at the academy, said Captain Haskins, a 1966 graduate .

Yesterday's orientation began with tearful early morning farewells from parents and girlfriends -- or boyfriends since the class includes 146 women. Midshipmen arrived from every state in the nation, including an expected 62 from Maryland.

Anne Dean of Madison, Va., admitted to "mixed feelings" after watching her 18-year-old son Corey file into Alumni Hall to register. She was accompanied by her husband, as well as Corey Dean's girlfriend, twin younger sisters and older brother.

"It's a hard day, leaving a girlfriend and family," said Mrs. Dean.

After a close encounter with one of 21 electric clipper-toting academy barbers and a series of medical tests, the plebes were issued standard, baggy "white work" uniforms that included the blue-trimmed plebe caps, and athletic gear.

Former plebes say the haircut, which leaves male recruits with about one-eighth inch of fuzz (women get trimmed to collar length), is the day's most traumatic experience.

"Some of them get very upset," said Andy White, a 34-year veteran of the academy's barbershop. "Some people value their hair quite a bit."

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