ANNAPOLIS -- At the finish of the song "Navy Blue and Gold," it is traditional here to shout, "Beat Army." The other day in King Hall, there was a variation: "Beat Iraq."
While students at other U.S. colleges debate the merits of the war in the Persian Gulf, those at the U.S. Naval Academy are united in support. Virtually every member of the Brigade of Midshipmen signed a 31-foot cloth that was delivered to the parents of Lt. Jeffrey Zaun, the 1984 academy graduate who is a prisoner of war. The theme was "You have 4,325 friends in Annapolis."
Zaun was a competitive gymnast at Navy and his status is one of many threads that have brought the midshipmen closer together as they prepare for careers that soon may find them joining friends and former teammates -- and former opponents -- in the war zone.
"In the hall we're very much for our troops and what they're doing," said Steve Cantrell, a 177-pound wrestler who was second in last year's Eastern Championships. "The brigade's been pulled much more together and the team comes together more too. Four guys from last year's team are in the Marine Corps and they're over there."
All Navy sports, men's and women's, are represented in the gulf. "When there's a cause such as the war," said distance runner Susie Stewart, "it links everyone together. Everyone at the academy knows somebody who's over there. You can't find anyone isolated from it."
Angela Dobbs, a junior from Perry Hall, Md., needs only 23 points to become the fourth Navy women's basketball player to reach 1,000. She will pass the current No. 4 all-time leader, Monica Holland, a 1989 graduate currently serving on the USS Comfort in the gulf.
"As a woman, it's great to see women as pilots and women serving on ships in the gulf," Dobbs said. "We used to talk a lot about basketball and other things, but now most of the talk is about what's going on over there. And when we played Philadelphia Textile, they asked us a lot of things about the academy and the war. They had American flags sewed to their uniforms, but we always have Navy sewed across our chests."
Jennifer Rowe, a senior distance swimmer, hopes to become a pilot after graduation. "I did a paper on women in combat," she said, "And I feel if women can do the job, filling the roles that are stereotyped for men, they deserve the chance."
The war has forced some introspection on the roles of sport. "I had a close race in the 1,000-yard freestyle against William and Mary Saturday and I was worried about losing," said Rowe. "I eventually won and I felt good about it, but it seemed so petty at the time. As I swam, I was thinking that I was selfish to be worried about a race with so many more important things going on."
Academy athletes always have carried the hopes of the entire Navy against Army and Air Force, but now they find themselves with added, self-imposed burdens.
"Unless they stop college football, the war won't affect the coming season," said Che Bolden, a sophomore wide receiver and pole vaulter. "But it will mean more for us, because we represent them. We're playing for people we represent rather than for ourselves."
"I know fellows over there who played hard when they were in our shoes, so we're playing hard the same way they did," said Eddie Reddick of Cheverly, the captain of the basketball team. "Everybody's concerned, because they know people there and have friends over there and, realistically, soon you may be over there.
"The only thing is, people are asking us how we feel about going to war and that's a tough question to answer. Just because we're preparing to be officers, doesn't mean we know what war is like."
"That's our job once we graduate, so everybody's really interested in the news about the war," said Erik Harris of Fort Washington, leading scorer on the basketball team. "We're only about 120 days from graduation and it doesn't look like it'll end any time soon. The TVs are on constantly and we watch it all the time and talk about it in class."
Peace protesters, often from neighboring St. John's College, are a frequent sight outside the academy gates. The Midshipmen indicate a desire to get opposing views, despite their own solidarity.
"I'm interested to hear what they say," said Bolden, whose father Charles was pilot of the space shuttle Discovery. "Everybody needs to hear what everybody has to say. When I called home last week and talked to my father, he was telling me to keep focused on what I'm here to do. He knew it was hard, because he was here during Vietnam."
"Around here everyone has similar views," Stewart said. "It's interesting to go outside and see how other people feel. I'm from Indiana and everybody at home is real curious about what it's like around here. They think we're in the center of things and they're concerned about terrorism."
Rowe knows that the war may be over before she completes flight training, but she said, "If I'm needed for combat, that's my job and I'm going to do it."
Each of the academy's 36 companies has adopted a ship in the Persian Gulf, sending over soap, shampoo, toothpaste, magazines, letters and videos of such things as Navy football games. The war probably won't help recruiting, but the academy does not plan any changes in its athletic program.
"Sports are part of our mission and we plan to stay the course," said Athletic Director Jack Lengyel.