Life in “The Yard” is rigorous

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If you are among the 10 percent of applicants who get into the U.S. Naval Academy, you enter as a plebe — as in plebian, Latin for the lowest of Roman society. In this case, it means the absolute bottom rung of the academy ladder.

If you are among the 10 percent of applicants who get into the U.S. Naval Academy, you enter as a plebe — as in plebian, Latin for the lowest of Roman society. In this case, it means the absolute bottom rung of the academy ladder.

On Induction Day, after the family goodbyes are said, the plebes are processed, hair shorn off, uniforms and gear issued, upperclassmen begin the loud, long and excruciating drill of strict military discipline: How to properly wear the “Dixie cup” sailor’s hat (plebes don’t get to wear a real upperclassman’s hat yet), how to salute, stand in formation and march, how to (and not to) pass inspection, how to answer to your superiors.

The Naval Academy does not believe in summer vacation, beyond a two-week break. Basic military training begins with “Plebe Summer,” starting around July 1. It’s an unforgettably punishing experience, even for those in good shape: Up at 5:30 a.m. for calisthenics, marching, weapons handling, maneuvers and exhausting obstacle courses on land, in water and mud, on ropes. This is during the hottest months of the year on the Chesapeake Bay.

The second summer is spent aboard various ships to learn and experience how Navy vessels actually work; this period includes either a three-week coastal or offshore cruise aboard a Navy 44 sailboat or aboard a Yard Patrol craft traveling on the East Coast. The third summer is spent visiting both Navy and Marine Corps bases. In their fourth and last summer, Mids join an operational unit of the Navy or Marine Corps for several weeks.

The 4,200-member Brigade of Midshipmen is organized into two regiments, six battalions and 30 companies. The company is considered the most important to the small-unit experience of building mutual trust, reliance and teamwork. All Midshipmen live in Bancroft Hall and eat, sleep, study, drill, play and compete as part of their company.

Students do not use academic titles (freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior), but are referred to by military rank, the lowest being Fourth Class (the plebes). Third Class are known as “youngsters.” Second Class Mids are responsible for supervising and training the plebes (reporting directly to First Class Midshipmen). The First Class (or “Firsties”) enjoy far more relaxed rules, but still must meet academic and athletic standards and are responsible for leadership of the Brigade.

The term “Midshipman” stems from the 17th century, designating young boys or cadets appointed by or apprenticed to the captain and stationed amidships to second the orders of officers and help with whatever needed to be done. In the early days of the Navy, Midshipmen were trained aboard ship until they were commissioned as ensigns. Academy sports teams are referred to as “the Midshipmen” or “the Mids.” The term “middie” is considered derogatory.

Students at the academy can select one of 43 majors within 13 fields of study, and graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree. Upon graduation, they can choose from various service options, ranging from aviation, nuclear ships, special operations, Navy SEALs, surface warfare or submarines.

The Navy pays for the tuition, room and board, and medical care of Midshipmen. Monthly pay for the students is $764, from which laundry, barber, cobbler, activities fees, yearbook and other service charges are deducted, leaving net cash pay of $75–$100 per month in the first year, growing to $400 per month in the fourth year.

Not all who enter the Naval Academy graduate. Midshipmen who resign or are expelled in their first two years incur no military service obligation, but those who are separated (voluntarily or involuntarily) after that time are required to serve on active duty in an enlisted status, usually for two to four years. To avoid service, separated former Midshipmen can repay the government for their educational expenses — a bill often more than $200,000.

Congress authorized the admission of women to all of the service academies in 1976, and the integration of women into the Naval Academy has not been easy. Gender tensions were inflamed in 1979, when current U.S. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), an academy graduate (1968), decorated ex-Marine and prolific writer, published a controversial essay titled “Women Can’t Fight,” opposing the integration of women at the academy. Webb recanted his essay during his 2006 campaign for the Senate after it became a political issue and several female academy graduates publicly criticized him.

Currently, women comprise about 19 percent of entering plebes and about 17 percent of each graduating class.