Military Academy Applications Down from Last Year
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
With no end in sight and more than 1,700 US combat fatalities, the war in Iraq is eroding Americans' willingness to serve in the military. Although the Army met its recruitment goals for June, all four of the main military services have been having a tough time meeting their quotas. Beyond that, applications to the three major military service academies are down. That includes the US Naval Academy in Annapolis which just inducted the class of 2009. NPR's Anthony Brooks was there.
ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:
Induction day starts what's known as Plebe Summer, an intense seven-week orientation program for some 1,200 freshmen that begins as soon as they walk into the Naval Academy's sprawling alumni hall.
Unidentified Man: Divide it up! Make it even!
BROOKS: In the first hour, prospective midshipmen receive haircuts, crisp white uniforms, white shoes and a crash course on strict Navy rules, like how to hold their round caps known as covers.
Unidentified Man: From now on, as long as you are a plebe, this is how you will hold your cover, in your right hand with your fingers extended. Keep it along your side. Get there now.
BROOKS: And how to read the academy's blue rule book known as the "Reef Points."
Unidentified Man: You will read your "Reef Points" in your left hand, extended to a 90-degree angle parallel to the deck, three, four inches away from your face.
BROOKS: And how to salute.
Unidentified Man: Notice, upper arm parallel to the deck. His forearm is at a 45-degree angle. Wrist and forearm is straight.
BROOKS: Throughout the morning, plebes scurry along a yellow line that leads from station to station, filling out forms, giving blood, receiving their gear while upperclassmen bark commands at them.
Unidentified Man: Platoon! Calvert(ph), they're moving. Get it on your head. This should be a couple of seconds.
BROOKS: Ensign Rollan Guerro from San Antonio, Texas, who graduated from the academy last year, now works for public affairs, watches all this with a knowing smile.
Ensign ROLLAN GUERRO (US Naval Academy Graduate): A lot of these guys, first time away from home. A lot of people yelling at you and you have to spit out information as fast as you can. And sometimes--and you can't remem--if you can--you can barely remember your last name. It's just a big mental, physical challenge.
BROOKS: Just about the only place the plebes aren't running is when they sit briefly with a Navy barber who quickly shaves their heads leaving the gray floor covered with tufts of clipped hair.
Tell me why you made a decision to come to the Naval Academy.
Mr. DAVID MILLER(ph) (Plebe from Ohio): Service to country, sir.
BROOKS: That's David Miller from Chillicothe, Ohio, who offers the only acceptable answer on this first day of his Navy career.
Mr. MILLER: I'm very proud of my country, proud of what we're doing overseas, always have been. And I'm really proud of what the guys are doing over in Iraq, and I want to be a part of that.
BROOKS: While the war in Iraq is making it difficult for military recruiters to fill their ranks, these Navy plebes say the war is why they're here. Eighteen-year-old Carl Brown(ph) is from Dumfries, Virginia.
Mr. CARL BROWN (Plebe from Virginia): It actually just made me want to do it even more.
Mr. BROWN: Because war is bad. I mean, war's a bad thing. You never--don't mean--I don't think there's anybody that wants to go to war but it's a necessity and somebody has to do it. And I think that if somebody has to do it, then why not me?
BROOKS: But despite the enthusiasm of this day, the numbers of applications to the country's military service academies came down this year compared to last. At West Point, they dropped about 9 percent. At the Air Force Academy and here at the Naval Academy, they dropped more than 20 percent--this, when university and college applications are at an all-time high. Don Nelson is assistant director of admissions at the Naval Academy. He says right after 9/11, applications peaked at more than 14,000. This year, they dropped to about 11,000, and he says the war in Iraq probably contributed to the dip.
Mr. DON NELSON (Assistant Director of Admissions, US Naval Academy): Granted, the visual image of what's going on overseas is something that may be--obviously, it's uncomfortable for a lot of people and the influence of parents around a dinner table. Even though the numbers may have gone down a little bit, the quality of these young people is still extremely high.
BROOKS: In fact, with four years of free tuition and a Navy commission to offer, the academy remains highly competitive accepting just one out of 10 applicants. Still, a new Gallup survey found that only a slim majority of Americans would support their child's decision to enter the military, way down from a few years ago when two-thirds said they would. Michael Corgan, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a Naval Academy alumnus, says he's not surprised.
Professor MICHAEL CORGAN (Boston University): Remember, a year ago when people were being asked these questions, `Would you support your own children going into the military?' there were promises of a quick result that the end was in sight, that this would be turned over to Iraqis and so on and so forth, and that clearly hasn't happened. People are much less willing to allow their children to be recruited for something that doesn't seem to have an end in sight, whose purposes are much less clear, so this is not unusual.
BROOKS: And you don't have to look far to find parents who feel that way.
Commander MATT STURGIS (20-Year Navy Veteran): I don't want to run my children's life, but I don't want them to be in harm's way.
BROOKS: Commander Matt Sturgis is a 20-year Navy veteran and a father. This past year, he ran the Navy Junior ROTC program at the Dover, New Hampshire, high school where for the first time in five years nobody applied to any of the military service academies. Sturgis believes the current war is a mistake. His own son, Joe, wants to become a military pilot, but Matt and his wife, Lisa, convinced Joe to postpone his plans and go to college first.
Cmdr. STURGIS: When I start seeing the senators and representatives start sending their kids to war, my kids will be right there. I didn't raise my kids to be killed, you know, in a conflict such as this.
Mrs. LISA STURGIS: Me, as a mother, I'll tell you, my heart, I was sick. I thought, `No, I don't want you doing it.'
BROOKS: That's Matt Sturgis' wife, Lisa Sturgis.
Ms. STURGIS: I guess I'm so thankful that he's saying, `You know, Mom, if you want me to go on to college, that's fine.' But in my heart I think that if I wasn't here, I really think he would say, `I'm going to join the service.'
BROOKS: For his part, Joe Sturgis is going to college in Massachusetts in the fall. He says he considered joining the Marines or a university ROTC program as well as the Naval Academy so he could follow in his father's footsteps to become a Navy flyer.
Mr. JOE STURGIS: Yeah, I did consider it. Yeah, but like my dad said, it sounds good up front, you know, the free college. You go in, what you want to be, but you've got to think about that commitment you're making, especially with the situation our country's in right now.
Unidentified Man: ...understand?
Group of Men: (In unison) Sir, yes, sir!
Unidentified Man: Do you understand?
Group of Men: (In unison) Sir, yes, sir!
BROOKS: Even at induction day at the academy, beyond the age-old rituals, discipline and commitment to service, parents are thinking about the war their children might soon be fighting. Some of them linger outside Alumni Hall after saying goodbye to their sons and daughters as they begin their naval careers. Among them are Tom Gallow(ph), a Navy vet and academy alumnus and his wife Stacy(ph), who just said goodbye to their son, Benjamin.
Mrs. STACY GALLOW (Son Inducted into US Naval Academy): I did have several conversations with friends who asked if we were crazy letting our son do this knowing that he will be called to defend his country. And, no, I never had any doubts.
Mr. TOM GALLOW (Navy Vet): You can always debate whether we should be doing things or not doing things as a military.
BROOKS: That's Benjamin's father, Tom Gallow.
Mr. GALLOW: But nobody would debate that we don't need a military. And if we're going to have a military, I'm comfortable, I'm happy to see people like my son and all these other men and women here to become the Navy's leaders.
BROOKS: Tom and Stacy Gallow's son, Benjamin Gallow, was inducted last week into the US Naval Academy as part of the class of 2009.
Anthony Brooks, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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