Plebes' first assignment: surviving Induction Day


Joseph Leahy, a husky 19-year-old from Long Island, N.Y., entered the gates of the Naval Academy early yesterday, following in his mother's footsteps.

Leahy, son of one of the first female graduates of the academy, was one of about 1,200 plebes to arrive at the Annapolis military college for the punishing yearly ritual known as Induction Day.

Noreen Leahy, a former naval officer who graduated with the second wave of academy women in 1981, watched her oldest child cross over from civilian to military life.

She weathered her initiation and harbored no qualms about her son facing the rigors of "plebe summer," a boot camp of sorts for aspiring Navy officers. Last month, President Bush addressed the 976 midshipmen who graduated with the Class of 2005.

"There's no way to describe the thrill of seeing him start this incredible journey," Leahy said.

The plebes arrive at a challenging time at the academy. Many recent graduates have gone off to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, and at least five graduates have been killed in action.

Applications for the Class of 2009 fell 20 percent from the year before, which many experts attribute to wartime.

Misty family farewells were said over and over outside the academy's Alumni Hall before the 984 men and 236 women, one by one, set their shoulders to be processed inside the building in a kind of a vast human assembly line.

Name tags, close haircuts trimmed to 1/8 inch, snappy salutes, white uniforms with round hats -- called "covers" in naval parlance -- were in store for each of them.

"This is the first time they've committed to something bigger than themselves," said Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, the academy's spokesman. "At the end of the day, they'll have a different look, a transformation. I remember my own first day here, and it's the longest day of your life."

Members of the new class -- who converged on Annapolis from all 50 states -- did not exchange hellos or pleasantries as they waited in lines yesterday.

Following orders from upperclassmen, many pored over a pocket blue book, Reef Points. The guide lays out the sailor's creed, slang, and much of what they need to memorize and learn about the Navy's structure, history and core values, as well as lyrics to such songs as "Anchors Aweigh."

Taking the midshipman's oath together in the academy's yard, in full view of their families at 6 p.m., culminated the day for the freshmen.

That moment was a long time coming for a young man from Baltimore County.

"My heart was set on Navy all along," said Brian Louis Antkowiak, 17, of Parkville. "Ever since I was a child, I felt a need to serve."

Asked whether he was prepared, he said, "I feel that way, but I'm sure I'll be reminded that I'm not."

That prediction seemed likely to come true from the sharp cadences, raised voices and orders coming from first-class midshipmen -- academy students in their last year.

Hundreds participate in training the plebes in how to fold socks and conduct themselves as they master marching, sailing, shooting, swimming and grueling PEP (physical education program) sessions.

Some midshipmen said the experience of leading, drilling and teaching Navy ways is as central to the academy rite of passage as enduring plebe summer.

A military manner is hard to instill in a day, but they start with the proper way to render a salute to officers and whether to use eye contact -- "eyes on the boat" means a blank stare straight ahead.

"We keep them confused so they learn to follow before they lead," said Matthew Harris from Houston, an upperclassman acting as a cadre. "They don't understand that cockiness might hurt the squad or team."

Harris said John S. McCain, son of the Arizona senator and Class of '58 academy graduate, arrived earlier in the week because he attended the Naval Academy preparatory school. The youngest McCain is the fourth-generation family member to enter the academy, academy officials said.

Don Nelson, assistant director of admissions, said that out of 11,000 applications, 1,500 offers were made for the Class of 2009. He said about 45 would leave the class during the summer and close to 1,000 would graduate.

"They're starting a new way of life with a special trust from our country," Nelson said. "Now the global war on terrorism is part of the package."

After the oath was taken, the newly sworn plebes were given about an hour to meet on the spacious lawns with their families. Plebe Emily Koch, 18, who graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school in Cincinnati, looked more collected and calm than her parents.

"She's known she wanted to do this since 9/11," said Jeni Van de Hatert, Koch's mother. "And if she goes [to war], she goes."

Another plebe parent, Dave Stinson of Spotsylvania, Va., said his son Eric, 18, was not fazed by the Iraq war. "The stronger they make these young men and women, the stronger the country will be," the elder Stinson said.

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