ANNAPOLIS, Md. — It will all look familiar Saturday afternoon, when, whether in football uniforms or dress hats and brass-buttoned overcoats, the seniors at Army and Navy enter Lincoln Financial Field for the last time.
But for those graduating “firsties”, the splendid spectacle of this year’s 114th Army-Navy Game will mask a reality far different than their post-9/11 predecessors faced.
For the Class of 2014, both here and at West Point, the future has been befogged by the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq, the fade-out in Afghanistan, steep defense-budget cuts and the constant reimagining of America’s 21st century military mission.
Raised in an era of constant conflict, trained in tactics and strategy by officers who literally earned their stripes in war, these seniors suddenly face a new and ambiguous landscape.
“Obviously, it’s different for them than for the guys who were here in the years after 9/11,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said of his senior Middies. “I can sense that there’s some uncertainty. But, let’s face it, there’s a lot of uncertainty in our world.
“Yes, Iraq is over and Afghanistan is winding down, but there are some other theaters that could be ramping up. We don’t know what’s happening in North Korea and other places. These kids might not be facing a war now, but they recognize that when you serve at a service academy, you’re always going to be in harm’s way.”
Whatever their prospects for battle, the academies’ seniors, including many Army-Navy Game competitors, must also confront the realities of a leaner military and one that many experts believe will skew increasingly toward technology and away from boots on the ground.
According to various estimates that emerged during the Congressional budget battles of the last year, military personnel and units could dip to levels not seen since World War II.
The Army, already scheduled to decrease its forces by 80,000 before 2017, could see deeper personnel reductions. The number of Marines could drop from 205,000 to 150,000.
The Navy, meanwhile, has made contingency plans to go from 11 carrier strike groups to eight or nine. In the Air Force, as many as five combat air squadrons could be jettisoned.
“These young men and women are on the cusp of entering the fleet and Marine Corps during very uncertain times,” said the Naval Academy’s superintendent, Vice Admiral Michael Miller. “But just like in years past, they will take the education and training from the Naval Academy and make us very proud.”
Last week, amid all the dire forecasts, linebacker D.J. Sargenti and his fellow Naval Academy seniors received their postgraduation assignments.
Sargenti, an icy-eyed economics major from Ridgefield, N.J., will be stationed at Quantico, Va., where for several months his path as a Marine Corps officer will be determined.
A few years ago, he indicated, he might not have been so quick to choose the Marines over the Navy.
“It’s definitely different now,” Sargenti said during an interview at the academy’s Ricketts Hall last week. “If I was here four years ago and looking at the Marine Corps, I definitely would have looked at it with a different eye. Back then, if you were going to choose the Marines, you knew you were going to be over in Afghanistan or Iraq fighting.”
Jason Zuzek, a junior who grew up in Brookhaven, Pa., and will start at left guard for Navy on Saturday, said that he preferred not to think about the decreased options awaiting him when he graduates in 2015.
“You get your papers and they’ll tell you where to go,” the West Catholic High graduate said. “So I don’t really know much about that stuff. Things could change tomorrow and there could be a war. You always have to keep that in the back of your head.”
At West Point, 211 miles to the north, the altered outlook might be even more noticeable.
There, thankfully, in recent months, the grim ritual of publicly announcing the combat deaths of West Point graduates — like Chase Prasnicki, an Army quarterback and 2010 graduate who was killed in 2012 by an IED in Afghanistan — has become far less commonplace.
Raymond Maples, Zuzek’s West Catholic teammate and Army’s top running back, said the ongoing uncertainty has forced senior Cadets like himself to adjust.
“Whatever the opportunities out there will be, I basically have to take advantage of them and make the most of them so that I can be the best soldier and leader I can be,” Maples said.
“Because of the recent drawdown and everything else that’s going on, a lot of officers will be tested mentally and physically,” he said. “We’ll be held to different standards. Those who can’t meet those standards are going to drop off.”
Maples, who grew up near 52d and Baltimore in West Philadelphia, already knows he will be an armor officer, but he won’t learn his posting — the exact nature and location of his assignment — until Jan. 30.
But war or peace, new Army or old, West Point has prepared him for anything, he said.
“When it comes to your life and your future, you have to plan a couple of steps ahead,” Maples said. “You also have to plan for contingencies because not everything goes the way you plan.”
The Class of 2014 differs in many other ways from those officers who graduated earlier in the previous decade who might have been drawn to the academies by the patriotic fervor that followed 9/11.
Many of these seniors were elementary school students on Sept. 11, 2001. Often, no one in their immediate family had served in the military. Some came to the academies as much for practical and football reasons as patriotism.
“Starting in 2008, more cadets did indicate a reason for getting an Army commission was because the Army provided better benefits and opportunities than jobs in the civilian market,” Mike Johnson, a spokesman at the U.S. Army Cadet Command, told the Washington Post.
Maples and Zuzek, for example, didn’t even realize there were service academies until they were recruited by them.
“I knew about the Army-Navy Game,” said Maples, “but I thought they just got a group of guys from the Army and the Navy and played a game in Philadelphia.”
What prompted Zuzek and Sargenti to make their head-turning visits to this picturesque campus along the Chesapeake was the realization that Navy — unlike the other interested schools — played Division I football.
“I had no idea,” Zuzek said.
“It was an opportunity to play against schools like Notre Dame and Ohio State,” Sargenti said.
At the moment, Zuzek, a junior with a general-science major, is leaning toward naval flight school, but has a year to decide. He’s still not sure whether he’ll “five-and-dive” — do his five years of mandatory service and leave the military — or make it a career.
Maples and Sargenti said the same about their plans.
“Initially I didn’t want any part of the military,” Maples said. “What changed my mind was the opportunity that’s presented here. You have a school ranked top-five on Forbes’ list of places whose graduates are guaranteed a job after (in his case, getting out of the service). Those kinds of things are hard to overlook.”
In the meantime, no matter what they end up doing in the military, West Point and Annapolis guarantee these graduates an enviable job security.
Zuzek has friends who envy not just his job security but the great health care and other benefits.
“They’re at places like West Chester and East Stroudsburg and they don’t know what they’re going to do when they get out,” he said.
“In fact, some say they’re going to join the military.”