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This plebe can 'low crawl' and often wears lipstick


As a plebe at the Naval Academy, Patricia DeSpain didn't expect and didn't get any special treatment because she's a woman.

She had to crawl in the mud like everyone else.

Ms. DeSpain is one of 1,180 first-year midshipmen going through Plebe Summer, an annual rite for all first-year students involving two months of intensive training with academic tests, military drills, unannounced room inspections, barked orders and physical exercises aimed at turning civilians into military professionals.

This weekend, the plebes got a break with Parents Weekend, which means parents and family members are invited to watch drill formations in front of Bancroft Hall, given tours of the campus, and get a chance to see their children for the first time since July 2 when Plebe Summer began.

The 20-year-old Naval Academy Prep School graduate spent much of the time visiting with her parents, who flew up from Houston and telling them about the rigors of academy life.

The plebes describe a regimented lifestyle that begins at 5:15 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., with every minute filled with some type of test or drill.

Many midshipmen say the hardest part of plebe life is the memorization required.

Each midshipman must memorize a different set of rules each day, be ready to recite them before meal time, and be prepared to spout off an array of facts relating to military hardware, Naval history or various calendar dates.

"It's intended as a training exercise. A Naval officer is going to have to pick up a lot of information quickly and know how to use it," said Darren Catallo, 17, a plebe from St. Cloud, Minn.

The tests aren't just mental.

Ms. DeSpain said the day before her parents arrived, drill team leaders felt it important to remind their charges of what it is to be a plebe by having them run out to a baseball diamond for exercises.

Unfortunately, it had rained just before the run and that meant mud everywhere -- all over their faces, their legs and arms.

To bring the lesson home, plebes were directed to crawl around the base paths using the Marine Corps "low crawl," a belly-to-the-ground form of locomotion often used by troops under fire.

When Ms. DeSpain finished, the drill team leader asked her about her career goals.

And when she admitted she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps and join the Marines, she was ordered to crawl an additional 90 feet from home to first base, to get used to such tasks as a Marine, she was told.

She found the run and the mud "invigorating."

"You'd expect to be tired and to say, 'I don't want any more of this,' but it just got everyone more pumped up. I felt like I could've run forever," she said.

Her father, Forrest DeSpain, said his daughter has wanted to be a Marine "since she was about 8 years old," and that she apparently has the right personality for academy life.

"She's something. The more punishment she gets, the more she'll be willing to take," he said.

Mr. DeSpain has a son, 18-year-old Forrest DeSpain Jr., who, like his sister, enrolled in the ten-month Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. Mr. DeSpain said his son will be at the academy jTC next summer.

Like his sister, he is expecting no special treatment. In fact, he's already been warned about that.

"She told him, 'I'm going to be just as hard on you as you were on me when we were kids.' "

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