A Battle-Tested Beginner
Wounded Marine Veteran Enters Naval Academy

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Yesterday's ceremony was the start of Plebe Summer, a grueling six-week boot camp during which the newcomers learn to sail, shoot, march and conduct themselves according to the academy's honor code. Much of it Walker will already know. But he also understands that he has plenty to learn. That lesson was imparted to him from officers back in Iraq who had graduated from the academy.

"Basically, they told me to keep my mouth shut and try to set an example," he said.

Walker applied to the academy out of high school. When he didn't get in, he turned down an ROTC scholarship and joined the Marines.

After boot camp at Parris Island, he found himself in Iraq, patrolling streets and manning checkpoints before volunteering for a sniper unit.

In November, he was among thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops who pushed into the insurgent-held city of Fallujah. When his unit came under fire near a mosque, he darted across a wide street for cover and took an AK-47 round in the forearm. The bullet splintered two bones in his arm, just under his elbow.

"I yelled at my buddy, 'Hey Brad, I need a corpsman. I've been shot,' " Walker recalled.

Sitting behind a secure wall, he lit a cigarette as a medic dressed the wound and injected him with morphine. He watched a pool of his blood form under him and thought, "Aw, man, this really sucks."

He was evacuated in a Humvee, but as the vehicle wound through narrow streets toward an aide station, Walker heard the radio blare. His squad was pinned down in a firefight; the squad leader was dead. Walker, his arm still bleeding, manned the .50-caliber machine gun as the Humvee roared back toward the mosque.

He saw a close friend crouched on the street, wounded. A few days earlier, on chow duty, Walker had given him an extra serving of hash browns. Now, blood was pumping from his chest.

The friend lived, and Walker eventually was evacuated to a nearby aid station.

Over the next several weeks, he underwent three surgeries and was sent to Germany, and then to Bethesda Naval Medical Command.

Walker was still eager to enter the Naval Academy, but the nerve and bone damage to his arm threatened his chances.

"I was really worried," he said. "But I was really lucky. Within a month I was doing pull-ups."

Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, said the experiences combat veterans bring are a huge asset. But it doesn't mean they'll be treated differently from the other plebes.

"Their respect within the brigade will be high, especially when the other midshipmen see their combat ribbons on their chest," Rempt said. "What we do is encourage them to share their stories and their experiences and to help their classmates. But they still have to achieve all the same goals."

Walker said his memories of Iraq will be an added incentive for him to excel over the next four years.

"There are guys out there who are a lot worse off than me in the desert," he said, "going without showers and without three squares."

And being shot at.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company