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Among the plebes, battle veterans

The Baltimore Sun

As he reported to the Naval Academy yesterday to begin the arduous six-week indoctrination of incoming freshmen, Jed Lomax didn't bear the look of fear so familiar on those who first arrive on the campus.

Lomax, 21, said he figured that Plebe Summer, notorious for its 16-hour days of grueling physical and mental training, would be nothing compared with running convoys in Iraq every day for seven months.

"It's a relief," said the former petty officer second class, who returned from his deployment in April.

While most new students at the academy will arrive for Induction Day today straight from high school, looking lost with red eyes and pale faces as their hair is shorn and they suffer tongue-lashings from upperclassmen, 238 showed up yesterday for a more low-key welcome. They already know the drill.

About a quarter of every freshman class at the Naval Academy comes from the enlisted ranks or one-year preparatory schools, which have tough introductions of their own. And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone on for six years and four years, respectively, many who came to Annapolis this week have already survived the rigors of combat for which Plebe Summer is meant to prepare them.

Greeting these world-weary students is a challenge that upperclass leaders - called cadre - don't take lightly.

"They definitely know more about combat than us, but we know more about being a midshipman," said Sarah Roberts, a senior who will lead 10 plebes during the summer.

There aren't as many moms and dads outside on "I-Day Minus One," and many of the plebes-to-be are prone to cocky grins, knowing they won't be so easily tripped up. After all, they know how to stand at attention, march, salute and polish their shoes, and their hair is already shaved or, for women, wound into tight buns.

But that attitude is what gets some of them into trouble - maybe a few more push-ups or an essay on leadership. Yesterday, as a dozen or so stood in line waiting to begin a long day of screening for tattoos, earrings and medical issues, as well as a maze of paperwork and processing, one upperclassman lamented that the group "was walking around out there like this is some kind of summer camp."

"I've been there, done that, and I can do it again," said Michael Laws, 21, who returned home from Al Anbar province in January, where he worked as an aviation systems computer technician. "A lot of the cadre have never been to war, and they're the same age as me, but this is their world and I have to learn it."

He applied to the academy at the urging of supervisors, he said, and although he is happy to be in Annapolis, he spoke wistfully about his time in a war zone.

"I would love to be back there," he said. "It was a great time. You get this bond with people that you just can't replicate anywhere else."

Others acknowledged a little more anxiety.

Anndrea Pierre, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, worked for five years as a Marine doing accounting for helicopter squadrons. An Iraq veteran, she was inspired by the pilots, who were academy graduates, to follow their lead.

"I feel a little nervous because it's new, but I knew this was a school of prestige, and that's what I'm aiming for," she said, noting that she was the first in her family to become a Marine and now is the first to attend a service academy. "I know it will be a challenge, but I'm up for it."

Patrick McConnell said he learned a lot about the academy as a Marine sentry for 2 1/2 years. He reported as a guard just days before Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, then the academy's superintendent, had gotten into an altercation with a Marine who asked him for identification as he came into the gates. Naughton later resigned after an investigation faulted his leadership style.

"It's high-stakes here," said the former sergeant, who lost that rank to become a midshipman. "If you step the wrong way, it's noticed a lot. I was really surprised something that minuscule just got blown into something so big."

When the bells rang, and midshipmen strode idly by, assured of the bright future that lay ahead of them as they chatted about classes and relationships, McConnell often dreamed of another life as he stood in the sun all day and checked IDs or searched cars.

"This place opened my eyes to a whole new world," said McConnell, who also instructed newly graduated midshipmen in the Marine Corps martial arts program in Quantico, Va.

Although he had blazed through the enlisted ranks, leading from 35 to 50 men at some points, he was ready to humble himself once more. "If you lose your ability to follow, you lose your ability to lead."

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