Navy commencement is rite of passage for high school friends

When they graduated from River Hill High School in 2008, Jonathan Hill, Rajiv Stone and Daniel Thyberg had a grueling summer of physical training awaiting them as they prepared to attend the U.S. Naval Academy together.

Four years later, the three friends, all Clarksville natives, are looking forward to graduation and impending commissions as officers.

Hill, a history major, will board the USS Ramage, a destroyer based in Norfolk, Va., in June as the ship's auxiliary officer. Stone and Thyberg, mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering majors, respectively, will report to Navy pilot flight school in Pensacola, Fla., where they will continue their training before being assigned to a base.

But first, along with about 1,100 of their fellow 2012 graduates, the three will hear Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta deliver the commencement address at the May 29 graduation ceremony. While all three are eager to graduate, they're not particularly looking forward to the ceremony itself. Hill groaned at the thought of sitting still from 7 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.

"I'll have to remember to go to the bathroom before," he said. "I'm just excited to walk across."

The way they tell it, it's been a long but fulfilling four years. Each offered anecdotes of Army-Navy Week leading up to the annual football game between the two academies. ("Spirited," Stone called it. "Controlled chaos," as Thyberg more bluntly put it.)

They alternately smiled and grimaced as they recalled Plebe Year, the first year in the academy, when students are allowed no media (computers, TVs, etc.) and are subjected to strict rules and physical training. All three point to football games as a highlight of their time in college.

The three say they haven't spent much time together at the academy. Upon arrival, they were assigned to different companies and living areas on campus, and their different majors have kept them apart academically. But throughout, football has linked the three of them.

Hill and Thyberg played together at River Hill, Thyberg as backup quarterback and Hill as a linebacker. Hill went on to play at Navy but stopped after a pectoral tear in his junior year. Stone, who played the saxophone, signed up for the academy's marching band during his freshman year — only to discover it features no woodwinds. So he learned a new instrument, the baritone horn, and has played at every game. Aside from free football tickets, playing in the band has had other perks.

"Plebe Year, you could leave the base on Saturday from 12 [p.m.] to 12 [a.m.], but because I was in the band, I'd get long weekends if we had an away game," Stone said.

Football has also kept the the midshipmen's families close: Hill's parents have a tailgate party before each home game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, which the three say they always stop by.

Aside from the tailgating and the option of going home during the weekend, having family in state hasn't affected the college experience too much, Hill said. One bonus of living only 40 minutes away from the academy, though, has been the opportunity to provide out-of-state friends with surrogate homes and families.

"They assign the out-of-state guys sponsors, local people to mentor them," Hill said. "My friends wouldn't really go to their sponsors; my family kind of became that for them. My aunt has a house here in Annapolis, too, so we'd go there a lot."

Hill is a platoon commander in charge of 39 people in his 140-man company. He presides over three squad leaders who send him weekly reports on each midshipman's academic and physical status.

Thyberg worked as a squad leader last fall, which he said gave him a chance to develop the plebes charged to him.

"I hated my plebe year," Thyberg said. "I had a terrible squad leader; he used to quiz us at lunch while we were trying to eat. So I tried to be a lot more relaxed. As long as they passed and their uniforms looked good, I let them relax, because I knew how hard they were working."

Stone serves as a battalion conduct officer, organizing adjudication for midshipmen who break academy rules. Stone guides his fellow students through the process, acting as a sort of clerk, "doing lots of paperwork." He said the punishments range from "tours" (forced 5:30 a.m. marches) to "separation" (expulsion from the academy).

As he explained his role and the various cases he's seen — about 50, he estimated — all three chuckled as they discussed the various charges they'd heard handed down to fellow classmates. They ranged from underage drinking, going AWOL and — Hill's favorite — "conduct unbecoming," which he said covers anything there isn't already a penalty for.

"Then there's 'failure to use good judgment,' which is just them basically saying 'You were acting stupid,'" Hill said.

All three have clean slates, but as Hill reminded Stone and Thyberg, a handful of their classmates have already faced separation from the service; and as the year winds down, they'll need to be careful to celebrate within the rules. With a little more than two weeks to go, the three are already looking forward to taking their next steps in the service.

Hill, Stone and Thyberg will leave their companies in the academy and the comfort of their home state to face further training as they move on to their new roles. The three have aspirations for their naval careers and bases where they'd like to serve.

Though the tailgates, football trips and Army-Navy Week shenanigans are at an end, the River Hill midshipmen will enjoy their last few weeks at the academy and then about a month of leave before they report for duty.

Copyright © 2019, Howard County Times, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad