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The Voices of Experience

In their sharp tones, Naval 'detailers' pass along a proud military tradition. It's a job for the strongest of the strong, the best of the best.

September 24, 1997|AMY ARGETSINGER | WASHINGTON POST

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — There was something familiar about the freshmen who lined up one day this summer to hand their duffel bags to Will Brooks at the U.S. Naval Academy.

It was the body language, the look in their eyes. Glazed. Confused. Insecure. "I see myself," Brooks mused.

In 1995, he was one of them--a clueless kid from Medina, Ohio, being dropped off by his parents. Now, only two years later, he had been tapped to show these future officers the ropes during their first month in the Navy.

At the U.S. Naval Academy and other military colleges, the people responsible for indoctrinating each incoming class are themselves relative newcomers to the rigors of military life--not battle-hardened sergeants, but young fellow students.

For students like Brooks, a 19-year-old junior, becoming a Naval Academy "detailer" amounts to a crash course in leadership that is almost as challenging as what plebes endure.

After just a couple of years of obeying commands, detailers must learn how to issue them convincingly. Just finishing their teens, they must project the aura of formidable authority figures.

*

The detailers are the stars of their class, handpicked for their good grades, professional demeanor and sterling behavior. They are the ones who ace all their assignments, who square all their corners.

But it's one thing to do. It's another thing to teach.

Brooks and seven other detailers from the Class of 1999 gather in a circle to practice explaining commands, as they would to the plebes. They stutter through their commands, trying to find the right words for the maneuvers they know by heart. Brooks tries the command of "fall in."

"The purpose of a fall-in is to get a group of people--of midshipmen--into a group, in an organized manner formed in front of the commander. . . . They want to be, actually, I don't know the exact distance. . . ."

"Six paces?" a fellow detailer offers.

" . . . Six paces away from their commander. The command's going to be given from at-rest or at-ease. . . . They'll run around the right-hand shoulder of the platoon commander and try to get cover. . . ."

"What's cover?" another detailer asks, catching a piece of Navy jargon that would baffle a new plebe.

Brooks' face breaks into a self-conscious grin, but he rattles on. "Good question. Cover would be. . . ."

*

Two weeks later, the plebes have arrived and the self-conscious grins are gone. The detailers have the drills down pat and can rattle them off confidently. They have it all down by the book.

But there's a lot that the book doesn't say about how to be a detailer. It's up to the individual to decide what attitude to affect to get the desired response from the plebes. Every detailer has a different style.

Brooks seems to have adopted a subtle style. As his plebes flail through a 6 a.m. session of calisthenics on Farragut Field, he walks among them calmly, scrutinizing their efforts with the steady and expressionless gaze of a Secret Service agent whose power to intimidate lies in his utter unflappability.

One of his plebes is straining through an endless series of push-ups, so Brooks--who has not joined the workout until now--drops to the floor and shows him a couple of perfect repetitions. "Off the deck," he says. "Keep your back straight."

"Keep going," he tells another, doing some leg lifts alongside a plebe almost crying with exhaustion.

His approach seems more personal trainer than drill instructor. Why no sarcasm, no name-calling? Well, because that's not the way Brooks learned it when he was a plebe. That's not the way his detailer did things.

"He was tough, he was consistent, but he would never demean or humiliate," Brooks recalls. "I wanted to do everything like him. I always thought, 'He's so locked on, he's so squared away.'

"I wonder what they think about me."

*

"Doesn't anyone know their rates today?" Brooks roars. He gets up in the face of one plebe--a guy about a head taller than himself. "Are you the weak link in the chain?" he sneers.

"Rates" are the lists of arcana--from names of shipboard weaponry to descriptions of coming menus--that plebes are required to memorize each day. That morning, the plebes were assigned to learn the names of the president's Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are made to feel like failures if they can't get them right. They don't know that Brooks, like many other detailers, brushed up on the names that morning.

Brooks orders the plebes to recite the Naval Academy mission, each taking one word, going around the circle, as he bangs on the table with a glass.

"To--Develop--Midshipmen--

Morally--Mentally--and--Physi-

cally--and--to--Imbue--

Them--With--the--Highest--

Ideals--of--Duty--Honor--and--

Loyalty--in--Order--to--Pro-

vide--Graduates--With--"

"With?" Brooks demands, stopping the recitation short. "Is that correct, Carreon? Is that correct?"

It's not correct. Carreon should have said "who."

"Start over!" Brooks pulls a loose thread from a plebe's shirt and dangles it in his face accusingly.

*

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