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53 LI students enter service academies

Known as plebes, more than 1,200 incoming freshmen,

Known as plebes, more than 1,200 incoming freshmen, making up the class of 2016, reported to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., last Thursday. A record 295 of them are women. Among them is Elizabeth Rullan, 18, center, of East Setauket, shown here falling into formation with other plebes on their first day at the Academy. (June 28, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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."

Elizabeth Rullan, 18, of East Setauket, said she is less enthusiastic about the prospect of combat. Her brother, Jeremy, is a soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

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



John Atkinson, Garden City

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.)

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