By Justin Kischefsky, U.S. Naval Academy
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, May 28. THE U.S. Naval Academy is one of the many colleges able to tout itself as a national university due to having a student population representing all 50 states. In contrast to many of those other schools that may have a high concentration of collegiate scholars from its home city, state or region, students attending Navy converge in Annapolis from nearly all of the 435 U.S. Congressional districts, giving every corner of our country a hand in forming the 4,000-member Brigade of Midshipmen.
Navy's athletic teams also follow along with the national makeup of the overall Brigade. As an example, the 77 student-athletes who comprised the men's and women's swimming and diving teams during the 2006-07 academic year hailed from 23 different states.
After their four years together on The Yard, the graduates and newly commissioned ensigns and second lieutenants are immediately scattered again as they are deployed to ships, aviation units and bases around the world for the start of their careers in the Navy or Marine Corps.
While opportunities to see former classmates on a regular basis are nearly impossible during their years of naval service, mini-reunions between small groups are not uncommon. One such gathering is taking place this Memorial Day Weekend as nine former members of the Navy swimming and diving programs are currently based together at the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal School at Eglin Air Force base outside of Destin, Fla.
The responsibilities of an EOD officer may be little known outside of the military, but it does not make their duties any less vital. The mission statement for this branch of the Navy which can trace its roots to before the start of World War II reads as follows:
"Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technicians render safe all types of ordnance, both conventional and unconventional, improvised, chemical, biological, and nuclear to include Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). They perform land and underwater location, identification, render-safe, and recovery (or disposal) of foreign and domestic ordnance. They conduct demolition of hazardous munitions, pyrotechnics, and retrograde explosives using detonation and burning techniques. They forward deploy and fully integrate with the various Combatant Commanders, Special Operations Force (SOF), and various warfare units within the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. They are also called upon to support military and civilian law enforcement agencies.
"EOD Technicians' missions take them to all environments, every climate, in every part of the world. They have many assets available to arrive to their mission, from open and closed-circuit scuba and surface-supplied diving rigs, to parachute insertion from fixed-wing and fast-rope, rappel, and Special Purpose Insertion Extraction (SPIE) from rotary aircraft, to small boats and tracked vehicles." (www.eod.navy.mil)
Because of the immense challenges faced daily by an EOD officer, the process to become one is grueling and highly selective. It is a job someone very much has to "want" to do.
For nearly all the nine former midshipmen, the seeds of interest in this field were initially sewn by conversations with EOD officers during their time at the Academy.
"After talking to several EOD techs, not one disliked their job and everyone was intelligent, motivated and hard working. Those are the people I want to work with," said Ryan McAnally (Class of 2005).
"Originally the opportunity to challenge myself mentally and physically peaked my interest, so I decided to do an EOD 'cruise' before my senior year at Navy and I loved it. I love the enlisted sailors who serve in the community and I love the level of responsibility given to such junior naval officers," said Jake Keefe (Class of 2005).
"I wanted to become an EOD officer because it's an amazing community. It is a very close-knit family of people who all love to be challenged and pushed to their limits. After learning about the community through my years at school, I knew it would be a perfect match for me," said Ian Getzler (Class of 2006).
Starting with Navy's Class of 2006, those who service selected EOD were sent to their first phase of training straight out of the Academy. For those who graduated prior to last year, however, the start of their official EOD training began after the conclusion of a tour aboard a ship as a surface warfare officer.
Keefe and Jacob Loeffler (Class of 2004) were both deployed to ships in the Persian Gulf, Jason Burkett (Class of 2004) was deployed to Japan and Allison Moon (Class of 2004) served aboard ships based both near (Pearl Harbor) and far (Southeast Asia).
One of Moon's more memorable experiences involved the travel she endured when she left her ship to report to Newport, R.I., to begin damage control assistant (firefighting) school.
"I flew on consecutive planes from Independent Samoa to America Samoa to Tokyo to Detroit to Providence, then I took a bus to Newport. I was lying in the Detroit airport completely confused as to what day or time it was."
Tyler Smith (Class of 2004) counts among his experiences the opportunity to participate in the recovery of an old aircraft off the coast of Cochin, India, as well as the successful recovery of an F-16 in South Korea. Additionally, he took part in a site survey in the Marshall Islands on the only surviving TBD-1 Devastators (Torpedo Planes from the Battle of Midway).
Regardless of the path taken by the former mids to Destin, all had to first complete dive school before they could advance to Eglin AFB. Though challenging, dive school was very much looked forward to and enjoyed by each of them. It not only returned the lifelong swimmers to the water, but also allowed them to receive the first taste of what becoming an EOD officer was like.
"Dive school was very memorable to me," said Loeffler. "I made a lot of awesome, lifelong friends."
"The six months of dive school allowed me to bond with other potential EOD officers," said Burkett.
"As part of our dive school in Hawaii we dove underneath the USS Missouri, the ship based on Pearl Harbor where World War II ended," said Moon. "To be able to accomplish something like that was amazing."
For each of them, the current challenges of EOD School has been helped by being surrounded by a contingent of former teammates who have the shared experiences of the Naval Academy.
"Being around so many mids is really great," said Burkett. "It helps strengthen a very strong bond even more."
"It was very sad for me to leave the Navy men's swimming team, and it honestly was hard to get used to the idea we were not together anymore after all we had been through and accomplished," said Brad Snyder (Class of 2006). "However, with going to school here with so many of my former teammates, it's like we never left each other."
"It is definitely exciting to know that a lot of the swimmers are here at EOD School," said Smith. "After swimming with them over my four years, I know they are all really great guys and girls, so I'm looking forward to working with them all."
Once their nine-month stay in the Florida Panhandle is complete, the former Mids will again be separated. This time, their destinations will be to EOD units based around the world. These units are forward deployed, meaning they will be sent into harms way. This knowledge brings the importance of their current training into even clearer focus.
"When I see the news that a car bomb or IED has killed soldiers in Iraq it reminds me I will have a very important job to do once I finish my training and that I will be extremely busy," said Burkett. "It motivates me to learn the very best I can here because I know my future detachment will throw me into some very nasty, complicated situations and I will have to use everything in my 'tool bag' from lessons learned at the Academy, in the fleet and at EOD School to make the correct decisions that will hopefully resolve the situation without the loss of life."
"There probably isn't a day which goes by down here when someone doesn't mention Iraq," said Keefe. "It is not a secret a lot of us will be spending time there and we know it. All we can do is prepare the best we can here and learn from the best teachers in the world. There is a reason why every other country sends students to the Navy EOD School; it's the best there is and all we can do is be a sponge and soak it up."
"The news makes me proud of the people already out there," said Moon. "It is a sobering thought that in a couple of months we will be there too, but that reinforces the desire to receive as much training as you can so you are prepared."
"I originally wanted to become an EOD officer because it presents a wide range of challenges in a close-knit environment," said Smith. "However, as time passes, the mission EOD serves has become more personal. IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are hitting a lot closer to home now that I have more and more friends in those areas. I want to do my part to help protect all those out there serving our country, and EOD provides me that ability to make a difference."
No matter where they will be deployed to following the completion of their training in Florida, all of them will carry along the memories and lessons learned as members of the USNA swimming teams.
"I think an EOD officer is a natural transition from being a swimmer at Navy," said Keefe. "A Navy swimmer takes their body to the limit on a daily basis and then has to go to Bancroft Hall and challenge themselves to be the best students they can be. The same is true for EOD technicians in the fleet as they are expected to perform physically and be sharp when it comes to thinking for one's self."
"The work ethic we held to while on the team at Navy has certainly carried over," said Snyder. "It's a long day getting up for morning practice, going to class all day while lifting weights at lunch, and then going back to practice, but it makes the long days seem not so bad."
"There's a lot of perseverance, hard work and toughness in swimming and it carries forward into the fleet," said McAnally. "The qualities needed to be a swimmer at Navy are what you need to do well in the fleet."
"Teamwork and dedication are at the top of the list for what I learned as a Navy swimmer," said Getzler. "At EOD School, both are critical to success. You aren't just studying for yourself. You have to work together as a class to push through the problems so that everyone can graduate. Without that teamwork and dedication to a goal, no one would make it."
"Balancing the swim team with the rest of the duties required at the Academy was extremely challenging," said Smith. "Doing that for four years required a lot of dedication and focus, and the discipline developed became very useful while serving onboard a ship. Shipboard life can be very hectic and fast paced. You do not always get much sleep and the work never ends. It takes a lot of discipline to manage your division's time and duties so we can all go home and spend what little time we have with friends and family."
For Moon, she can trace the importance of the teamwork needed to be a successful EOD officer to one event during her freshman year at Navy; her first Army-Navy meet in November of 2000.
The Mids entered the West Point pool that day riding an 11-year winning streak over the Black Knights. Navy had posted a slim 152-148 victory over Army one year early in Annapolis, but now found itself trailing by 27 points with just five events remaining.
"Even though I was a plebe, I knew how important this meet was and what was at stake," said Moon. "We were down by a lot, but then I looked around at my teammates and saw everyone start to come together. Everyone said, 'We're Navy. We have to do this. We will get this done.'"
The meet was not decided until the final relay, but in the end Navy had rallied to post a dramatic 151-149 victory and record its 12th-straight win in the series (a winning streak now up to 18 in a row for the Navy women, while the Navy men have posted 16-straight wins in the series).
Moon would go on to earn All-Patriot League honors three times during her career, tie the Navy record for the most career Patriot League Championship relay event titles won with nine, help Navy win a team league championship and be tabbed as the 2004 Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year for her sport. However, none of those accomplishments are more memorable or important to her than what she and her teammates achieved on that winter's night in 2000.
"That night was a defining moment for me. It was when I saw what a team is all about."