U.S. Navy midshipmen enjoy the view from vultures’ row as Carrier Air Wing 5 Super Hornets get ready to launch and land on the Kitty Hawk flight deck. From left are Yuval Fleming, Tyler Croft, Frederick Espy, Michael Garcia, Daniel Tischler, Christopher Pratt and Jason Mason.

U.S. Navy midshipmen enjoy the view from vultures’ row as Carrier Air Wing 5 Super Hornets get ready to launch and land on the Kitty Hawk flight deck. From left are Yuval Fleming, Tyler Croft, Frederick Espy, Michael Garcia, Daniel Tischler, Christopher Pratt and Jason Mason. (Lamel J. Hinton / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

Midshipman 1st Class Charles Leary was at the helm of the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur when a man-overboard call came. It was just a drill, but it required some of the most difficult maneuvering on a ship.

For someone not yet out of college or commissioned in the Navy, it was an unmatched opportunity.

“It’s one thing to just observe what’s going on. It’s another to do it,” the Purdue University student said. “You take away the real experience of the Navy that you can’t learn in the classroom.”

Midshipmen such as Leary — naval officers-in-training from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., or with a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps program — spend several weeks during summer break serving on a ship, aircraft or submarine learning to be sailors, leaders and mariners.

For a lucky 600 this year, that experience also meant a trip to Asia.

The midshipmen summer cruise can take place anywhere in the world. In Japan, commands that welcomed them added cultural visits as part of the curriculum. They flew more, controlled more and did more than their counterparts back home.

“Inside of all of us there’s an inherent fear of not going anywhere,” said Midshipman 2nd Class John Stretcher from Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Sometimes the ships are just hanging out at a pier in Norfolk (Va.),” Leary added.

Both served aboard the Curtis Wilbur and fired weapons including a mock Tomahawk. They visited Vietnam, something few current servicemembers have done.

Midshipman 1st Class David Hodapp from the Naval Academy spent his cruise flying over Tokyo with HSL-51, a helicopter squadron based at Atsugi Naval Air Facility.

He flew far more than he expected.

“They had us up for all of 10 minutes before they handed over the controls and had us land,” he said.

Back home, his brother, another Navy Academy cadet, spent his cruise floating down the eastern seaboard looking at not very much, Hodapp said.

“He’s just insanely jealous.”

Learning the ropes

The midshipmen have three summer cruises during their college years. For the first, they participate in CORTRAMID, or career orientation and training for midshipmen, a quick introduction to the Navy, spending a week on each of the Navy’s platforms: ships, submarines, aviation and the Marine Corps.

The second summer, they participate in a three-week cruise, paired with an enlisted petty officer.

“They integrate you into the ship’s activities,” said Midshipman 2nd Class Eric Burtner-Abt, from the University of Idaho. “You get to see what just about every rate (job) does.”

The second year is critical, said Lt. David Parker, NROTC advisor at the University of California at Berkeley who assisted the program in Yokosuka, Japan, this summer.

“They get to see what it takes to be a follower before they get to be a leader.”

For the final summer, midshipmen are paired with a junior officer.

“Without these cruises we wouldn’t have the faintest idea what we’re doing when we get here,” Leary said. “Part of the training made me realize what I’ve got to go back and study.”

The midshipmen learned you can bump your head on just about everything on a ship, plans often go awry and chief petty officers are the go-to guys.

The midshipmen praise the amount of responsibility they’re given — more, generally, than counterparts in the States.

Despite the glowing experience of many, midshipmen know they aren’t always appreciated.

They take up valuable space, especially in submarines where beds, or racks, are in short supply. Their inexperience renders them helpless observers.

They could, and some do, spend the entire cruise lounging around. It’s called being a rack monster.

“On the smaller ships you get noticed more. On a bigger ship you fall through the cracks,” Burtner-Abt said.

“Some people treat it like a summer vacation,” Leary said. “There’s a lot of personal responsibility.”

Leading the way

The program’s success comes from the command, Parker said.

A motivated commander, executive officer, command master chief or liaison officer can all make the difference, helping midshipmen adjust, encouraging the crew to support them and involving them in activities.

“It really boils down to the [leadership],” Parker said. “If you have a good command, it makes a big difference.”

Cmdr. Eric Patten, commander of HSL-51, made sure the midshipmen visiting his squadron had plenty of experience flying and seeing what military life is all about.

“Not only to see what it’s like to be in the military but to be a military member here in Japan,” he said.

When Patten was a midshipman in San Diego, he only flew once, he said. He hoped to give the new generation more experience.

“It’s completely exceeded my expectations,” said Midshipman 1st Class Bryan Garcia, from the University of Southern California, who flew with Patten. “I can say that I’ve flown a helicopter or driven a submarine [last year]; every time I come back with a new set of experiences that nobody else has.”

“It’s so much better [than in the States]. We get an opportunity to go out here and see what Japan is like,” Hodapp said.

Visiting Japan, flying around Tokyo and sailing to foreign ports is exciting. But the skills they learn are essential, Parker said.

“Shooting guns is fun, but the most valuable thing they can learn is how to be a good officer no matter where they go.”

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