For plebes, it's 'the best'


It was during a family trip to the U.S. Naval Academy while she was in eighth grade that Emily Kochenash became interested in becoming a midshipman.

Yesterday, the 17-year-old from Allentown, Pa., was standing with her family in a long, winding line, waiting to sign in and pick up her gear.

"Teamwork, major, sports and the chance to become a leader," said Ms. Kochenash, ticking off her reasons for choosing the Naval Academy in crisp military precision. "I'm planning on making a career in the Navy. This is the best."

Ms. Kochenash joined 1,219 other prospective plebes -- or freshmen -- yesterday for the start of Plebe Summer, the grueling six-week introduction to academy life.

Sixteen percent of the class of 1998 are women, the highest percentage since the school began accepting women in 1976. Overall, about 14 to 15 percent of the Brigade of Midshipmen will be women.

"It mirrors what is the percentage of the fleet," said Karen Myers, an academy spokeswoman. "As that goes up, we go up."

Ms. Myers also said the academy is getting more highly qualified women, eager to take advantage of more Navy jobs opening up to women.

"I'm still going to be in the minority, but not much of a minority," said Jennifer Dowell, 17, of Lutherville, who hopes to become a fighter pilot.

The higher percentage of women "will make it more comfortable to adjust," Ms. Kochenash said.

Twenty percent of the Class of 1998 are minority, led by Hispanics (94), followed by African-Americans (89), Asian Americans (52) and Native Americans (12).

Among them are twins Noel and Joel Rodriguez, who left Puerto Rico with their parents in 1989 and settled in Florida, speaking little English. They both hope to study aerospace engineering and become Navy pilots.

The Naval Academy is "a great challenge," Noel Rodriguez said.

"And, if you meet the challenge, the rewards are endless."

For the next six weeks the midshipmen candidates will learn how to march and handle a sailboat, how to shoot a .45-caliber pistol and to signal other ships. They also will be taught Navy history and rules and do countless pullups and sit-ups.

But first, they had to endure another time-honored military tradition: waiting.

The line of candidates stretched more than 100 yards from Alumni Hall, where they signed forms, gave blood, signed more forms, picked up uniforms and laundry bags and signed again before selecting sneakers and bathrobes.

"Last name," snapped Midshipman 2nd Class Dominic Iacono, 19, of Hockessin, Del., as the plebes approached his table, which was brimming with nameplates. They timidly offered their names, only to get a swift rebuke from Midshipman Iacono: "You're in the military now. You call everyone by 'Sir' or 'Ma'am.' "

"They look pretty good so far -- responding to orders," said the midshipman with a smile, as the nervous candidates hustled up the stairs and through the maze of Alumni Hall.

"It's kind of a shock to my system," Clayton Shane, from Little Rock, Ark., said as he left academy barbers with his head as smooth as a cue ball. He rubbed his scalp. "It feels good actually -- clean."

Glen Harris of Tallahassee, Fla., sat in the barber's chair as the tufted remains of his black hair fell on the floor. Why did he choose this life?

"Main reason: My biggest ambition is to become an astronaut," said the 18-year-old who would watch from his home as NASA rockets glowed and then rose from their launching pad.

Mr. Harris said that the cheating scandal that led to the expulsion of 24 midshipmen this year "ruined my pure view of the academy."

But he said that cheating occurs at all colleges. "At least it was brought out in the open," he said. "They're changing it for the better."

Most incoming plebes had little comment or concern about the scandal that rocked the academy for the last year and a half.

"Bunch of bad apples, I guess," said Brendan D'Anna, 18, of Woodbridge, with a shrug. "I don't think that's how the academy is at all."

The scandal raised questions about the school's commitment to its strict honor concept: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they do not lie, cheat or steal."

The honor concept "is something they have to live by, midshipmen have to understand that," Ms. Kochenash said

Midshipman 1st Class Reuben Brigety, the top-ranking midshipman, said training in the honor concept these plebes will receive differs from what he learned three years ago. Then, academy officials focused on how the honor concept works and said very little about morality in daily life.

"They didn't talk about living ethically," said the 20-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., "which is what we hope to focus on."

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