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In Step With the Times : Tradition marches on at the U.S. service academies, which have no problem finding new cadets to enter their ranks.

April 16, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To 19-year-old Cadet Matt Maier of Simi Valley, training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., should be "something you want to do. Otherwise you're going to hate it."

To 21-year-old Cadet Jessica Matthews of Glendale, life at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., begins with all the warmth of an inquisition. "Imagine," she says, "4,000 parents or 4,000 of your friends yelling at you constantly, telling you what to do."

Indeed, tradition at America's major service academies marches on.

Never mind that the Cold War is slush, defense budgets are slashed and some military bases are doomed. Any changes at West Point, Colorado Springs and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., have made the academies leaner but not necessarily meaner, some Valley-area enrollees and officials say.

Enrollments at each are being trimmed because, as Maj. Keith Trohoske, a U.S. Military Academy spokesman, points out, "In a smaller Army, we'll need a smaller officer corps."

But applications for the roughly 1,200 first-year positions at each academy pour in as ever.

Oddly, California's crippled economy adds to the surge at West Point, says Maj. Pat O'Doul, an admissions liaison officer. "More parents tell us, 'We can't afford to send our child to college. Can you help us?' " says O'Doul, who with three colleagues serves the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys and part of Ventura County. "We tell them that if their child qualifies and then makes it all the way through, we can guarantee four years of college, a bachelor's degree and a commission--at no cost to them."

Still, as the military downsizes, the academies are more selective. "You used to find kids who were interested and you tried to qualify them," says Maj. Tim McNiff, an Air Force Academy admissions liaison officer who serves the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. "Now, we find the qualified students and just give them the information."

Today, youngsters choose academy life for different reasons: service to country, a high-quality education paid for by the U.S. government, pride in meeting tough entrance requirements, a need for regimentation, security in a shaky job market.

As Ray Gerena, 17, a senior at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino and an applicant to West Point, says: "The job picture is discouraging to young people, especially in today's economy. But after you've been a commissioned officer in the Army, it will say on your resume that you served as a leader for six years."

His classmate, Tim Sehnem, 18, is equally pragmatic. "When you come out of the service, you're 28," says Sehnem, who has been accepted to West Point, but also is considering the Naval Academy and the Notre Dame University ROTC program. "And if you play it right, you can save money because you don't have to buy a house or a car."

Air Force Lt. Nathan Brauner, 23, of Northridge says he chose the Air Force Academy because he was "awe struck" by the training, marching and small classes. "I know it's corny and trite, but I liked the adventure and the chance to do something for my country," he says by telephone from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. He adds, however, that academy life "isn't for everyone."

Matthews chose the Air Force Academy because she wants to become an astronaut, inspired by the memory of the 1986 Challenger spacecraft tragedy that killed the crew of seven. The crew members' photographs and other Challenger memorabilia adorn her bedroom at home.

"They weren't all the best of the best, or the smartest of the smartest," says Matthews, who was 1989 class president and soccer team captain at Los Angeles' Immaculate Heart High School, "but they all believed in themselves--and they were doing what they wanted to do."

What has changed at the academies, many say, is training that is said to be kinder and gentler than the stereotypes of high-voltage instructors screaming high-decibel commands and insults.

At West Point, discipline has softened for plebes (freshman cadets), says Maier, a 1991 graduate of Crespi Carmelite High and a second-year cadet who plans to major in political science and law. "The incoming cadets aren't hazed or yelled at anymore," he says. "Before, we were treated like crap. They tried to break you down by yelling at you, 'You can't do anything right!' "

The Air Force Academy, too, has toned down its regimen for freshmen, nicknamed "doolies," Matthews says. "Instead of 'Dammit, why didn't you do this?,' now it's 'Excuse me, can you please shine your shoes,' " she says during a brief visit home.

She adds that she once came "within minutes" of quitting after "a terrible day. But something inside me said, 'Don't do it.' " Now, she says an academy commission is "like having a gold card. It's like your diploma says, 'Wow! You've really accomplished something!' "

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