Plebes tested at Sea Trials

By LIAM FARRELL, Staff Writer
Published May 14, 2008
Based on intelligence reports, the four Marines huddled behind a barrier yesterday knew there was a clear path to a hostage held by enemy fighters.

Under covering fire, the first two took off and raced to another blockade and prepared to open the way for their comrades.

Things went awry pretty quickly, however, when one of the Marines started getting cramps in both his hamstrings.

Fortunately, this wasn't a rescue mission in Iraq or Afghanistan - it was one of the drills for the Sea Trials, a 14-hour physical and mental endurance test that marks the culmination of a midshipman's freshman, or plebe, year.

"The terrorists won't stop shooting us because you're cramped," one plebe sardonically remarked to his struggling comrade.

The day started with reveille at 3:30 a.m. and was scheduled to end with a celebratory barbecue at 6:30 p.m., with many sweaty and muddy moments in between.Modeled after the Marine Corps' 54-hour "crucible" and Navy's "battle stations," the challenges stress teamwork and were held on the grounds of the Naval Academy and the Naval Support Activity Annapolis complex.

In a change from previous years, the Sea Trials were not open to plebes' parents or sponsors. Before the annual, and slippery, climb up the Herndon Monument tomorrow, the company that demonstrated the top unit performance will be recognized with the Iron Company award.

The Iron Company will get a trophy, a pennant to be displayed during formations and parades, and the first crack at climbing the Herndon.

By turns euphoric and distressed, the plebes were turned into a perpetual-motion machine.

Plenty of scenes from the day displayed the teamwork ethos that the trials are meant to inspire: Groups of midshipmen shouted their company number instead of the usual counting off push-ups or squats; helped exhausted companions over and through an obstacle course; sprinted in unison for a punishment lap when just two of about 30 midshipmen took their hands off the huge, water-soaked logs they had spent the last several minutes lifting.

"Endurance-wise, it's tough ... but (with) everyone working together, you don't really think about it," said Midshipman 4th Class Eric Brugler of Rochester, N.Y. "It's a tough first year, but I got through it and I can't complain."

Many of the challenges were cast as missions or situations in a war zone: a pull-up exercise was pitched as part of a method of psychological warfare, in which every pull-up meant one more of your fellow prisoners-of-war would stop being tortured; an exercise of crawling beneath wire was part of infiltrating Iran from the Caspian Sea.

The exercises also were dedicated to heroic soldiers, many who died during the course of battle. For example, the pugil sticks exercise - where two midshipman fought with padded weapons standing in for rifles - was dedicated to Marine 1st Lt. Ronald Winchester, a Navy football player who was killed in Al Anbar province in Iraq.

A group of drills derived from football training was dedicated to Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who enlisted in the Army in 2002 and was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004.

But it wasn't just plebes who took part in the Sea Trials. Some sophomores also got into the action, working as organizers of the event and taking part in the drills for the second time.

Wearing wet camouflage and mud, Midshipman 2nd Class Blake Moore of California had volunteered to help out after having "had a blast last year."

"This definitely adds everything together that you've been working for," he said. "You really just got to try to have fun with it. An end is in sight."