- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) - The all-day physical exercises that mark the end of a midshipman’s first year at the Naval Academy were never exactly fun. But this year, they’ve gotten even more serious.

Dodgeball is no longer on the program. Parents aren’t allowed to gather on bleachers anymore to cheer. And each stop of the exhausting day is dedicated to a fallen service member.

The academy has put greater emphasis on wartime sacrifices, hoping to inspire plebes - the term the academy uses for freshmen - to think about what they are doing behind the academy’s walls on the picturesque Severn River.

“You are here to be tested and to learn how to be leaders of our magnificent sailors and Marines out there in the fleet,” Col. Mike Shupp told about 1,000 midshipmen last week in a chilly, pre-dawn gathering on Rip Miller Field. “You are here because we are still fighting the war on terror.”

For the next 13 hours, upperclassmen pushed them through challenges of body and mind - obstacles scattered between miles of running around the academy’s campus and the neighboring Naval Station Annapolis.

From the start, things looked different. T-shirts and colorful headbands that in the past gave the event the feel of a college ballgame were banned.

The event - called the Sea Trials - has become “more military focused,” said Stephanie LaLiberte, a third-year student from Orlando, Fla.

For the first time, the day’s events included a simulated improvised explosive device, or IED, the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents.

While plebes jogged toward two stations, they came across an area with props made to simulate an ambush. The goal was to make plebes think about how they would react and aid fallen colleagues.

“When we hit them, we’re just looking for their reaction, and what we’re really looking for them to do is keep their wits about them,” Lt. Shaun Lieb said.

The IED drill is a big step beyond the dodgeball game and other light activities that Midshipman LaLiberte recalls from past Sea Trials.

“It’s more focused on the squads and the company, making sure that they can get through as a class and as a team,” said Midshipman LaLiberte, who talked plebes through a crawl in a muddy trench under barbed wire.

Plebe Bradley Maa of Colorado Springs said he was taking the experience to heart, as the repeated dedications to fallen troops put the training in perspective.

“In everything that we’re going through, as uncomfortable as it is or as painful as it gets at times, it’s nothing compared to what everybody else is going through in Iraq or other war zones,” said Midshipman Maa, who took part despite a fracture in his foot that kept him from finishing.

For many, the day wasn’t just uncomfortable; it was painful. Faces tightened during team sit-ups in the cold Severn waters. Then, it was right into the mud trench. Later, a log hoist made one plebe vomit. Then came an obstacle course.

From the course’s rope climb, plebes made their way to a small wooden ring with a sandy floor for some one-on-one padded stick fighting. Once football helmets and mouth guards were in place, two plebes swung at each other.

“Get ‘em! Get ‘em!” a fight supervisor, whistle in hand, yelled to a charging plebe.

“Come on,” an observer shouted after one plebe withdrew from the day’s exertions, blaming cramps. “It’s not dance lessons.”

When it was all over, after some 30 challenges, the plebes gathered for hamburgers and hot dogs in the academy’s cavernous Dahlgren Hall. Many of the spent plebes sat on the floor.

But Plebe Rachel Manning, of Haddon Township, N.J., was on her feet, talking to another midshipman. She said the day’s events and dedications made her think about the “bigger picture out there.”

“In three years, I’m going to be leading sailors, and I need to put them always before myself and that’s what these great people did that we learned about today - put others before themselves,” she said.



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