Summer survivors


Six weeks ago, Zachary P. Anderson was confident, even a bit brash.

Plebe summer? Pshaw. He knew what he would face as a Naval Academy freshman during the indoctrination period. After all, his brother, a Navy SEAL in training, graduated in May. Break 'em down, build 'em up. He had heard all about it.

Living it, however, was far different.

"There are no words to describe it," the Hunt Valley teenager said. "I honestly thought I had it figured out, but you have to experience the whole thing."

The sweat and exhaustion, the bombardment of information, the constant monitoring, nitpicking and yelling.

Parents of this year's plebes beamed Friday as they watched nearly 1,200 sharply saluting midshipmen march in a crisp formation.

Beyond the physical transformations - the shorn hair, the newly developed muscles - the midshipmen and families who reunited for parents weekend seemed most surprised by the more subtle changes.

"He's dropped a little weight," JoLynn Johnson of Camdenton, Mo., said of her son Jarred, 18. More than that, she said, "he's more confident, pointed and direct."

For the privilege of a free, top-notch college education, the young midshipmen must serve five years as Navy or Marine Corps officers.

It all starts with plebe summer. The physical rigors include sailing on the Severn River, swimming, running and doing countless push-ups under the hot sun.

"Just being sweaty all the time; it was ridiculous," Anderson said.

The mental stress is equally difficult for some.

Plebes endure a stream of in-your-face criticism and commands from upperclassmen who inspect their rooms, make sure they memorize the daily menu and absorb Reef Points, the bible of midshipman conduct. This summer, 31 plebes, an unusually low number, dropped out, academy officials said. That leaves 1,197 members in the Class of 2010.

The rite of passage ended Friday with a morning that began with a dawn exercise session, which many families got up to watch.

The families next saw the plebes at the finale of sorts, the noon lunch formation between the columns of Bancroft Hall, which houses the midshipmen.

Camera-toting parents craned their necks to find their sons and daughters amid the sea of white before individual reunions took place on the lawn.

Midshipman Chastity Dunnaville of Baltimore, 17, weathered plebe summer with the wind of family tradition at her back.

"She's from a long line of Navy," said grandmother Gloria Irving. "Her mother had 21 years in the Navy and her two uncles are on active duty. At 18, they were either going to college or the military service."

Dunnaville said she could see the difference in herself.

"It was long days and early mornings, but I'd do it again," she said. "I have a lot more teamwork and leadership skills, and move a lot faster, with more urgency. You learn how to change uniforms and sheets fast in rack drills."

Plebes learn quickly that rack, in sailor parlance, means bed.

Donald Anderson, a contractor, and Betty Anderson, a nurse, underwent the academy parental experience for the second time. Donald Anderson, who was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, said both of his sons are now part of the future leadership of the Navy. "These are the [officers] I used to talk about."

Listening to the Naval Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney A. Rempt, speak earlier in the day, the Andersons said, underlined the larger reasons that their sons signed up for military service.

Driving those lessons home to plebes was what the summer was all about for 21-year-old Cassie Bushong. A senior midshipman majoring in ocean engineering, Bushong helped teach a class on honor, duty, sacrifice and integrity.

Some of those values were instilled in her when she was young. Her father, a submarine officer stationed in Brussels, Belgium, graduated in the academy's Class of 1981.

For the last class meeting, she accompanied a platoon of plebes Friday to Hospital Point Cemetery, where military and naval heroes from the Civil War and the Vietnam War, along with midshipmen who died more recently, are buried.

"That gives a bigger meaning to why they're here for plebe summer, besides the exercise and drills," Bushong said. "The oath of office to protect the Constituion, what does that mean? Because that's why you're here."

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