Navy program defies borders

The Baltimore Sun

Giancarlo Alpuche looked every bit like the other 1,200 Naval Academy freshmen who reunited with family yesterday after six weeks of indoctrination that cut him off from the world.

His shoes were shined, his cap squarely fitted and his shirt tucked in just so. He even displayed a respectable command of midshipman lingo, using a dizzying array of acronyms when he greeted peers.

But there was one thing he didn't share with his American peers: their allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

A native of Belize, Alpuche is one of 48 international students who attend the academy full time as part of a military exchange program that dates to the Civil War. The practice has been stepped up in recent years at U.S. service academies in an effort to give officer trainees a broader cultural understanding.

"It was really a challenge to come here from a foreign country and a laid-back civilian lifestyle and learn the standards of such an advanced military," Alpuche said, shortly after embracing his parents, who had flown in from the small Caribbean country. "But overall, it was incredible."

The international Mids hail from all over the world, including Central and South America, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and attend the academy for four years at the expense of their countries, in exchange for their promise to fulfill a service commitment there.

While Academy officials and outside observers have widely praised the program, the participation of four Pakistani nationals has not been lost on several members of Congress, who frequently ask academy officials at quarterly meetings of the Board of Visitors to ensure that the students are taught democratic principles.

But the other service academies have reached out even more, welcoming cadets from Iraq, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Chad, Egypt, Rwanda and Georgia. The U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., hosts 60 international students, the Pentagon-mandated limit, and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has 52 foreign cadets.

The program dates to when Pierre D'Orleans, a native of France and relative of the king, graduated in 1864, said Naval Academy historian Jim Cheevers. Numerous Japanese students attended in the 1880s, and many reached flag rank in their own navies.

Tim Disher, a retired commander who heads the academy's international programs office, said they welcome new international students 10 days before the rest of the plebes to help them acclimate.

Despite the culture shock, international students have been much less likely to leave the academy than U.S. citizens.

"The standards are the standards, and by and large, they learn very quickly," he said. "These countries send their best and brightest here, and there's a lot of pressure on them to do well here."

Although Alpuche, 19, seemed to blend in well as he reunited with his mother and father, both of whom were proud of his success in Annapolis thus far, the cultural divide was evident nonetheless.

The cadre -- older Mids charged with preparing plebes for academy life -- often teased him, he said, not unlike they do to every midshipmen in the process of "breaking them down." They also mercilessly made fun of his shoulder-length hair and peach-fuzz mustache depicted on his Belizian driver's license.

But once he had time to prove himself, suffering through grueling workouts and tedious initiation rituals like reciting memorized lunch menus or newspaper articles on command from upperclassmen, he gradually began to blend in, he said.

"No one had any idea even where Belize was," he said.

The country, which borders Mexico and Guatemala and has a population of 279,000, was fodder for many questions. He found himself educating others in fluent English -- Belize's official language -- about his country's giant barrier reef or the many languages spoken by its diverse peoples, including Spanish, Creole, German, Garifuna and various Maya dialects.

When he completes his academy education, Alpuche said he has committed to serve the Belizian government for at least four years, although not necessarily in the military, he said. His peers often quizzed him on what Navy job he would choose if he could stay, and he said he favors the medical corps.

"They would often ride me about that," he said. "They'd say, 'We're teaching you to kill people, not to fix them.'"

Both his parents were born and raised in Belize, and Alpuche had scarcely been away from home before he came to Annapolis. A soccer enthusiast, he applied to the Naval Academy at the urging of his brother, who works part-time for the Belizian military.

They had tried to prepare together, but much of what he learned from his brother, such as saluting or other aspects of "military bearing," had to be relearned in the six weeks of Plebe Summer.

"I'm always goofing around and not being too serious, sir, and having to stand straight up and not smile and not move was not what I was used to," he said with a smile, standing straight up, with his hands in fists at his side, almost at attention.

His father, Angel Alpuche, said he and wife, Linda, believed in their son and prayed frequently for his success. Plebes are allowed only one five-minute phone call every two weeks in the summer, and both missed him dearly.

"He was locked away," Angel Alpuche said, noticing that his son had lost some weight. "But coming here now, we're so honored he's at such a prestigious institution and glad he made it so far. I'm just extremely impressed by the atmosphere here."

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