The photos of midshipmen grin from nearly every wall of John VornDick's pleasantly cluttered house overlooking the Severn River, six miles upstream from the U.S. Naval Academy. They were kids when he met them: Garry Hall, the boy from Buffalo; John Wissler, the quick rugby player from Brooklyn Park, Minn.; Dave Little, the wannabe pilot from Glen Falls, N.Y.
Yesterday, all three were in uniform half a world away: Hall in a Navy command post in Qatar; Wissler leading Marines in Kuwait; and Little in the cockpit of a fighter jet flying from an aircraft carrier.
"Of course I'm worried, but I can't let it bother me," VornDick said. "If there's an airplane crash and I don't get called in a few days, I know there's someone else out there who is devastated, but I have to move on."
VornDick, 63, has shepherded 231 of the academy's midshipmen toward careers in the Navy and Marine Corps as part of the academy's "sponsor family" program. Although he never has been in the military himself -- and never has married or had children -- VornDick, a retired printing salesman, has served the midshipmen for 27 years as their mentor, friend, brother and even father as they navigated the academy's rigorous trials and became young men. (VornDick has sponsored one woman.)
"No sponsor has tried to take the place of a parent, but sometimes, due to family situations, it happens that way," VornDick said.
Little, now a lieutenant commander, paused Friday after landing his F/A-18 Hornet fighter on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Fresh from a combat sortie over Iraq, he said he'd just received an e-mail from VornDick back in Annapolis.
"He spent countless amounts of money on us -- there was always more food than you could eat at his house," said Little, who graduated in 1991. "But it's about more than money. He provided a home away from home, a place where you could go, where you knew he'd be there and you could tell him your troubles. It meant there was someone there who would always listen to you and who could give you some guidance. . . . For all the stuff you went through as a plebe, he'd put it all in perspective. He deserves a lot of credit for what he did."
More than half of VornDick's wards have left the military for civilian life. The rest are scattered across the globe, flying jets, steering ships and submarines, and serving in a military at war. More than a dozen of his former midshipmen are in the Persian Gulf. Hall, from the class of 1978, is the assistant commander of naval air forces for the Pacific Fleet -- VornDick's highest-ranking graduate.
Another graduate is commanding Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 in Kuwait. Several others are carrying out the airstrikes on Iraq, a few were Navy SEALs executing secret missions deep behind enemy lines, and others were Marines, punching through Iraqi frontier defenses.
Even as they prepared for war, many found time to write letters to and e-mail VornDick. He hopes they can come back to his cozy home, which has sponsored as many as 38 "mids" a year since he began in 1975, and share their stories in person.
Midshipmen know it's a place where they'll always be welcome. Autographed Blue Angels posters, yearbooks, hats, uniforms and football pins are tucked in every corner of the 4,000 square-foot home. Six televisions allow the students to watch just about anything they like; they can even sleep in an upstairs room that has seven bunk beds. Weekends are a feast of chicken, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. The house is where they can relax and be free of the strict regulations that prevail in Bancroft Hall, the dormitory where all these midshipmen live.
The day after President Bush issued his 48-hour ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Clint Anderson, a third-year midshipman majoring in history, was spread out on a living-room couch, watching the Bruce Willis action flick "Armageddon" as the hours ticked down to war.
Wissler, a close family friend of Anderson's and a 1978 graduate of the academy, is a colonel commanding a Marine transport support battalion at Camp Fox in Kuwait. When Anderson came to the academy, Wissler recommended that he turn to VornDick.
Anderson says it was the right decision. "Coming out here on Saturdays is the best part of your plebe year," Anderson said of his first year at the academy. "It's a big part of what kept me going . . . you get the academy off your mind for a few hours every week."
VornDick -- wearing a navy blue "Gone but Not Forgotten" T-shirt that, he proudly announced, was flown over Afghanistan by one of his graduates -- said the midshipmen, especially the plebes, "sometimes want to talk, but mostly want to relax, sleep, eat, sleep some more, kick back, eat and sleep."
"He's our friend," Anderson said. "He's a great guy, he's family." VornDick echoed the same sentiment: "They are my family."
VornDick has attended more graduates' weddings than he can count. He has been the best man 10 times. He hasn't missed a home football game since 1975. Come Christmas, his mailbox is stuffed with cards from his midshipmen. Even mids who long ago left the military behind stop by his house when in the area.
"Mostly, it's good times," he said. "They've been good to me."
Suddenly, he blurted out: "I've lost six."
He remembers how he lost each one. He became much quieter as he recited how they went: The first one was in an F-14 training accident; the second, an auto accident; the third, leukemia; the fourth, a helicopter crash; the fifth killed himself; and the last died in another airplane accident. None died in wartime, but that doesn't make things any easier, he said.
"The last one was August 2001," he said, his voice quavering. "I was the best man at his wedding and I did the eulogy at his funeral." He quickly changes the subject.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, contributed to this report.