From Annapolis to Afghanistan

They were walking to class on that bright blue September morning when the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon were hit and when a plane destined for Washington crashed into a Pennsylvania field.

The midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy had come to Annapolis as the children of military families, as athletes, as young patriots eager for service, or as the nation's brightest students, ready for rigorous academic challenges.

But they graduated in June 2002 into a nation at war, 9/11 as personal for them as Dec. 7 had been for the class of 1942. And the decade that followed would define them, in David Gergen's words, as "the next greatest generation."

Memories, stories and lessons from the class of 2002 have been collected in a new book, "In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice and Service from America's Longest War," edited by classmates Joshua Welle, John Ennis, Katherine Kranz and Graham Plaster. It is published by Naval Institute Press; sales will benefit veterans and military charities.

"This is not a Naval Academy book," said Lieutenant Commander Welle, though he included a chapter describing life at the Naval Academy, from plebe summer to the moment they throw their white hats in the air at graduation. "This is about what it means to be a military officer after 9/11. This is a leadership book."

It has drawn high praise, especially within the military. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has put it on his list of 18 must-read books for naval officers. A copy will be in every ward room on every ship and in every library serving sailors and officers.

But Lieutenant Welle hopes it will bridge the information gap with the American people, who (with some obvious exceptions, such as Marine families like mine) have thought of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as Army wars. Most people understand less about the role of Navy and Marine pilots and Marine ground troops in these two wars.

The editors solicited members of their class, and 125 of the 900-plus who graduated offered contributions. Of those, 33 were published. Two were written by mothers who lost sons, and one is an anonymous tribute written by a young officer who saw his instructor, mentor and leader blown up in front of him in Iraq.

One of the most poignant essays was written by Rocky Checca, a Marine who flew the CH-46 Sea Knight, the helicopter used to evacuate the wounded, the dying and the dead. He asks out loud if those who survived with lost limbs and lives forever changed resented him.

"Were any of them like Lieutenant Dan from the movie 'Forest Gump,' who hated Tom Hanks' character for rescuing him, forcing him to live life in a wheelchair instead of letting him die on the battlefield," he wrote.

Some of the essays are less devastating. In "Find A Way, or Make One," Meghan Elger Courtney writes about battling military red tape so she could build a gym on a destroyer to improve the morale of the sailors. Meagan Varley Flannigan writes about piloting a Tomcat. Unable to unload her ordnance because "friendlies" were too close, she describes screaming low over the enemy and watching them scatter at the sight and sound of her jet.

I was reporting from Annapolis on the morning of 9/11 and went right to the Naval Academy to see how it was responding. The gates were closed, sandbagged, and the Marines assigned there were hunched behind machine guns.

Inside, classes were canceled. The midshipmen ate in small groups in the cavernous King Hall instead of as an entire brigade. Rumors were rampant that the Academy was on a target list, and it made no sense to have the future of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps under one roof.

One of the contributors to this collection writes that midshipmen were issued the dull bayonets with which they practiced drills, the better to protect the Academy if the enemy came over the sea wall.

From that day on, the Naval Academy grounds, which had been like a lovely public park for visitors and Annapolitans, became almost an armed camp. It is that way still.

Those of us who live in Annapolis like to think we live in a college town — the difference being that our students wear crisp uniforms, doff their hats and call you "sir" or "ma'am" and hold the door for you.

That is still true, of course. But "In the Shadow of Greatness" reveals how profoundly life has changed for the young men and women who now graduate to war.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at Twitter: @SusanReimer.

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