A Battle-Tested Beginner
Thursday, June 30, 2005
"Eyes straight ahead, all the time!" the upperclassman barked.
Were it not for the silver-dollar-size scar on the inside of his elbow, the legacy of an AK-47 round, Jeffery Walker would look like any other freshman trying to survive the wrenching induction into the U.S. Naval Academy.
The wiry 20-year-old from Conover, N.C., calmly complied, following the yellow line taped to the floor of Alumni Hall on Tuesday. It marked the path to his new uniforms, to doctors' needles, to instructions on a proper salute and, ultimately, to becoming an officer.
Walker knows that no matter how exacting the next four years may be, no one will be shooting at him. Nor will he watch his fellow Marines spill blood on the streets of Fallujah.
"It won't be Iraq," he said.
Walker is part of a small but growing demographic of incoming cadets and midshipmen at the nation's service academies: combat veterans. He has the scar and the Purple Heart to prove it.
The Naval Academy has long accepted midshipmen from the enlisted ranks; it took 76 this year. But combat veterans have rarely been seen at the Annapolis institution since the Vietnam era. Walker is one of two sworn in yesterday, both Marines, both of whom fought in Iraq. Academy officials expect more.
The number of veterans has grown sharply at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where 30 combat veterans were inducted this week, including a Purple Heart recipient, said West Point spokesman Frank DeMaro. Last year, there were 22. The year before that, eight.
For veterans, entering one of the service academies means trading hard-earned enlisted stripes for the rank of plebe -- the lowest form of life at the rigidly hierarchical institutions.
Before the swearing-in ceremony yesterday, Walker, who was a Marine lance corporal, spent every free second studying his "Reef Points," a small blue book of naval traditions, trivia and regulations issued to all plebes, with orders to learn it by heart.
And like all first-year midshipmen, he was instructed on the five basic responses all plebes need to know:
"Yes, sir." "No, sir." "Aye, aye." "No excuse." "I'll find out."