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'I do,' but many more don't; Tradition: The number of graduates who marry at the Naval Academy Chapel is declining, but fewer wedding bells is music to organizers' ears.


Jean Forkin and Patty Heiberger, both from Annapolis, took their seats as they do every year on the park bench across the street from the Naval Academy Chapel, eagerly surveying the assembly line of weddings crammed into the days immediately after graduation.

They compared wedding dresses, counted bridesmaids and commented how cute "the boys" look in their uniforms.

But ultimately, they were a little disappointed.

"There are less weddings now, it seems," Heiberger said with a sigh as the bride and groom of the hour emerged from the chapel and passed under an arch of swords held by other midshipmen. "I think there is more encouragement to get them started in their careers first. But boy, there used to be so many."

Since World War II, thousands of newly commissioned academy graduates have rolled through the chapel one after another to get hitched in ceremonies sometimes only a half-hour apart. During the Vietnam War, more than 100 graduates married in less than four days.

But from that time, weddings at the chapel have been on a steady decline. Last year, 13 couples married, this year 20. And spectators, who line the walkway outside in an atmosphere somewhat akin to watching the wedding channel, grumble that nowadays there's too much downtime between ceremonies.

Social change, peacetime and a several-years-old premarital counseling program have all contributed to the decrease. For wedding coordinators and chaplains, though, who recite horror stories from the old days of guests, flowers and gifts ending up at the wrong weddings and brides marching in as another bride was marching out, the slower pace is a refreshing break.

"The year I first started, we had 60 weddings, two going on at once: one in the main chapel and one downstairs," said wedding coordinator Mary L. Torrese, who has been running chapel weddings for 20 years. "We would start the first weddings sometimes at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. and keep them going through 9 at night. It was too much."

With fewer marrying during commissioning week, chapel organizers say they are seeing more weddings during the year as more graduates return to marry later on.

"I have requests for September and October like it's going out of style," Torrese said. "A lot of them are recent graduates who decided to a wait a year or two." And academy officials are more often suggesting just that to students.

Graduates have spent the last four years being told where to live, what and when to eat and how to handle themselves. Some academy officials want them to experience life on their own before committing to marriage.

Navy life can be hard on newlyweds. Most midshipmen are sent out on six-month to yearlong deployments within a year of graduating, leaving their new spouses behind.

To address these issues, the six chaplains at the academy established the premarital program several years ago that counsels couples on everything from how to manage a budget to how to better communicate. Each year a number of couples from the program decide to wait.

Chaplain Diana L. Meehan said the couples she sees go through the program are stronger for it.

"Separation is difficult at best," Meehan said of the time when the officer leaves for deployment. "Sometimes the reality of what it is sets in, and it's not 'Top Gun' or glamorous like they thought. It's hard work. We want them to understand the lifestyle they are choosing. Some are ready. Some are not."

Only graduates of the academy and Navy personnel stationed there are allowed to marry in the chapel. The privilege doesn't expire, either. Last year a graduate in his late 70s got married there.

Coordinators get calls every year from people wanting to wed there who argue that they always go to Army-Navy football games or that a parent is a war veteran. The coordinators turn them away.

Even for the rest of the year, the chapel is booked at least a year in advance. Those who do land a wedding day there marry beneath stunning stained-glass windows under an enormous window-framed dome. The navy-blue carpeted aisle leading to the altar is as long as a football field, lined with more than a hundred pews, though few couples manage to fill more than the first dozen rows.

The chapel simplified the wedding process in the early 1990s by providing flowers, music and a singer. The couple can choose songs and Scripture readings, and among two priests, three Protestant ministers and an evangelical minister, depending on their beliefs. Chaplains say they try to personalize the weddings as much as possible.

Still, after three days of six or seven weddings, chaplains acknowledge, they start recycling homilies.

On Friday, as Heather A. Fifield from Edgewater and graduate Joel Uzarski emerged beaming from the chapel steps and headed to their reception, they said they know that most people are marrying later, but that they could not be more confident in their choice.

The two began dating almost three years ago, and began planning their wedding a year and a half ago. Fifield said she was ready to be a Navy wife, and had no illusions of grandeur.

"We would have done it sooner if we could have, but we had to wait until today," Fifield said, referring to the rule that prohibits midshipmen from marrying while in school.

"This is just such a special time, I can't imagine it any other way," Uzarski said. "And the chapel's awesome."

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