ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Just past noon last Thursday, what had already been a rough first day at the U.S. Naval Academy was getting even tougher for Kerri Hands, a 17-year-old from the farming hamlet of Orient on eastern Long Island.
Standing at attention in ill-fitting plebe whites, she and about a dozen other incoming students were expected to quickly pull the academy handbook from a pocket and begin cramming, while uniformed upperclassmen shouted orders at them. But the book caught in her pocket, and Hands struggled to free it.
Midshipman 1st Class Hanna Ledger, a towering Texan, leaned close and glared, her face inches from Hands'. "Too slow, too slow, too slow," she shouted, as Hands fumbled nervously. "Get it out right now!"
As the nation pauses to celebrate the July Fourth holiday, 53 students from Long Island's five congressional districts -- Hands among them -- are in the process of beginning college careers at four of the nation's five military service academies. Nineteen Long Islanders were listed as enrollees last Thursday at Annapolis, nine at the Air Force Academy in Colorado last Friday, and 10 at West Point two days ago. Another 15 are scheduled to arrive Thursday at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point.
To better understand the world that awaits them, a Newsday reporter spent a day with several of these students as they enrolled at the Naval Academy, which was founded in 1867 and where students are required to study engineering, mathematics, science and the humanities.
Just getting into the nation's service academies, which provide a free four-year college education in exchange for a five-year active-duty enlistment after graduation, is a daunting challenge. At the Naval Academy, for example, only 6 percent of students who applied will enter this year, almost as low as exclusive Princeton University's 4 percent rate. And even to be considered for admission, applicants must be strong in math and science and then nominated by a member of Congress or by the White House.
Hoping to fly high
Hands, a top student at Greenport High School on the North Fork, where advanced placement calculus and readings in Shakespeare boosted her combined SAT scores, said she chose the Naval Academy because she eventually wants to fly military aircraft. Graduates of the nation's military academies are commissioned as officers, an essential step for prospective military pilots.
"I've always been interested in challenging myself," Hands said just days before she reported to the academy.
So has Michael Romano, 18, of Plainview. Rejected by the Naval Academy last year after graduating from private Chaminade High School in 2011, Romano spent a year studying at Villanova University to boost his application.
He said he became determined to apply to the Naval Academy after being inspired by some of his mentors at Chaminade, the elite Marianist Catholic school in Mineola.
"I realized all of the guys I looked up to on the athletic teams were going to the academies," said Romano, a rugby player who first visited the Annapolis campus while participating in an ice hockey tournament there years ago.
Last Thursday, Romano was one of 917 men who were subjected to three-minute buzz cut haircuts that have become part of the traditional gruff welcome for incoming male students to the Naval Academy.
"I knew it was coming," said the tonsorially transformed Romano, as a barber from Baltimore bore down with electric clippers. "But it's a little more real now."
Women allowed to fight
These new plebes and cadets from Long Island -- which include at least 10 women -- are preparing to become U.S. military officers at a time when the Pentagon is being pushed to open doors previously shut to women serving in America's fighting forces.
In February, the Pentagon released plans to allow females to serve in about 14,000 military jobs that until this year were considered too close to the front lines for women, including in tank, artillery and air defense battalions. That is expected to increase the prospects for career advancement among the more than 200,000 women serving in the nation's 1.4-million-member active duty military.
That is just fine with Samantha Picco of Lake Ronkonkoma.
A 2011 graduate of Sachem High School North, Picco was so determined to win admission to West Point that she spent an extra year of college prep by attending Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. Her family even took a loan to help pay for the private prep school's $42,000 annual cost.
"If I could be one of the first female officers in the infantry, that would be awesome," Picco said. "Infantry are always on the front lines. I feel I can make more of a difference there."
But Rullan, who this year was ranked by ESPN as one of the nation's top 100 high school girls' lacrosse players, said competing in an institution that has traditionally been dominated by men is a challenge she willingly accepts.
"I think it will be hard," said Rullan, who is among a Naval Academy incoming class that is record high 24-percent female. "But I think it will help me struggle to keep up with the boys, and prove that women can do anything they can do."
LI Nominees to service academies
The following were nominated by LI's congressional delegation and accepted by the service academies:
Daniel Alotta, West Islip
Charles Bill, Huntington *
Santos Bonilla, Wyandanch
Brett Dadiego, Baldwin
Anthony Franze, Wading River
Melissa Gabriel, Queens Village
Casey Gibson, Point Lookout
Veronica Leddy, East Islip
Maximilian Umland, Garden City
Jin Yang, East Northport
Conor Beck, Hicksville
Maximillian Berdel, Wantagh
Kyle Clausen, Southold
Travis Feinberg, Oceanside
George Hatzioannides, Oakland Gardens
James Hundertmark, East Williston
Carll Johnson, Port Jefferson
Connor Keefe, Huntington
Eric Kennedy, Massapequa
Thomas Kloepfer, Amityville
Stephen McGuire, E. Rockaway
Michael Thorne, Kings Park
Robert Tirrito, Centerport
Christopher Whitenack, East Meadow
Ryan Ballester, East Moriches
Garret Boyce, Sayville
Stephen DiBartolomeo, Glen Cove
Sara Giraldo, Port Washington
Kerri Hands, Orient
John Keck, Wading River
Alison Kennedy, Huntington
George Khoury, Bay Shore
Thomas Kim, Levittown
Charles Morris, Manhasset
Codi Mullen, Wading River
Kelsey O'Brien, Massapequa
Anthony Romagnoli, Hampton Bays
Michael Romano, Plainview
Jacob Rothstein, Port Jefferson
Elizabeth Rullan, E. Setauket
Ryan James Spadaford, Rockville Centre
Jason Steiner, W. Hempstead
Philip Villani, Albertson
Blaze Bissar, Bohemia
Jonathan Corona, Stony Brook
Jessica Fabrizio, East Setauket
Zenel Hudson, Bay Shore
Nicholas Juliano, Sound Beach
Samuel Mo, Great Neck
Shea Mullins, Islip
Michael Perrettine, Farmingdale
Thomas Phung, Queens Village
Samantha Picco, Lake Ronkonkoma
*-Decided not to attend
SOURCES: Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights), Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills), Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), Sen Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)