Anchors aweigh: Local youth in first year at Annapolis
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Joseph Hounchell has hardly had a typical introduction to the college experience. As “plebe,” or first-year, in the Brigade of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Cornwall native is in uniform at all hours, can recite the menu of the next three meals from memory, and is working toward a career in the Navy or Marine Corps after he graduates.
It’s far from the trappings of many college freshmen, but that’s exactly what he enjoys.
“It’s not always the most fun and it’s not a normal college, but in the big picture I really think I’m part of something bigger than myself by being here,” he said in a recent phone interview from the academy in Annapolis, Md.
Pursuing a career in one of the most exclusive undergraduate institutions in the country wasn’t always part of his plan. As a senior at Middlebury Union High School last year, Hounchell, who is 18, hadn’t considered any of the service academies. But on a trip with his parents to tour colleges in the Washington, D.C., area, he found himself with an extra day. His father, Eric Hounchell, a 1992 graduate of the academy who served for five years in the Marine Corps, suggested they take a tour.
Impressed by what he saw, Joseph Hounchell decided to apply. In addition to writing essays and providing transcripts and advanced placement test scores, Hounchell submitted physical fitness results and received congressional nominations from Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy. Up until spring of his senior year his top two choices were the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Annapolis. Finally, he made his decision for the academy.
“I liked what it stood for and I liked the opportunities that it seemed to provide,” he said.
WELCOME TO THE NAVY
Hounchell’s journey started on Induction Day, July 1, which marked the start of “Plebe Summer,” a six-week indoctrination to naval and military codes of conduct and intensive physical training. He and the other plebes received uniforms and military haircuts, underwent medical evaluations and learned to render a salute.
Plebes also each received a copy of “Reef Points,” a 225-page handbook of information about the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the Naval Academy’s history and traditions, the administrative chain of command, and the general orders of a sentry. New midshipmen are required to memorize virtually all of the more than 1,000 facts outlined in the book.
At the end of the summer, Hounchell completed the physical readiness test, including 45 push-ups and 65 sit-ups in less than four minutes and ran 1.5 miles in under 10:30. He ran through obstacle courses and became certified in shooting the Navy’s standard issue rifle and pistol. He also took sailing lessons — his first ever — on the Severn River at its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay, where the academy is located.
The summer heat, grueling workouts and demanding mental exercises took their toll.
“It’s all part of breaking you down so they have something to work with,” he said.
By the end of the second week in August, he and the 1,192 members of the class of 2019 were ready to begin school.
THE LIFE OF A PLEBE
On two or three mornings every week, Hounchell wakes at 5:15 a.m. for a morning workout on the campus grounds. It can be anything from a game of capture the flag to a series of hill sprints, push-ups and sit-ups. Otherwise, his alarm sounds at 6 o’clock sharp, after which he leaves his room in Bancroft Hall, the largest college dormitory in the world, joining the rest of the plebes in a formation called “chow call.” They each recite the menu items of the day, officers of the watch and the uniform of the day for the upperclassmen who are still in bed.
“Basically, we act as the alarm clock,” he said.
Afterward, they make their morning quarters formation where the company is split into four platoons for inspection and announcements. At 7:15 a.m., Hounchell is at breakfast with the entire brigade of 4,511 midshipmen in King Hall. The dining facility features 372 tables spread out over a 55,000-square-foot area. His first class starts at 7:55 a.m. This semester, he has chemistry, calculus, English, fundamentals of seamanship, a leadership theory class and a government theory class. Each is 50 minutes long and he has 10 minutes to get to every class.
Half of his professors are officers in the Navy or Marine Corps while the others are civilians. His favorite class is English, which he says is taught by a dramatic professor who resides in the area.
“She’s the complete opposite of what this place is about,” he said. “She dresses like Lady Gaga and she’s very expressive and dramatic, but she’s incredibly smart as well.”
They’ve just finished reading Greek tragedies like Sophocles’ Oedipus Cycle and have now started a unit on gothic horror including William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Truman Capote’s “Miriam.”
Lunch is at noon and classes resume at 1:30.
In addition to coursework, midshipmen also have physical education requirements. All plebes are required to take boxing and wrestling in their first year as well as a mandatory sports period. This semester, Hounchell is participating in flag football — no surprise since he played four years as a receiver and cornerback for the MUHS Tiger football team.
After a mandatory 8-10 p.m. study period, plebes are required to be in bed at 11 p.m.
As an additional requirement, plebes are assigned a chapter every week from “Reef Points” to study for a quiz every Friday evening. Topics can include the elements of surface warfare, including all specifications of a Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier, its size, mission, armament, variety of planes on the ship, crew size and visual identification.
It’s a full day every day, and when Hounchell’s friends from home ask what his days are like, his first response is often “tiring.”
“It’s one of those places where you get out of it what you put in,” he said. “If you want to have a good time with it, you’ll have a good time but if you take a woe-is-me attitude, you’ll suffer.”
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
Hounchell’s tuition is paid for by the academy under the condition that upon graduation he give five years of service in one of four areas: special warfare, which includes the Navy SEALs and Explosive Ordnance Disposal; naval aviation, where Hounchell would serve as a pilot; surface warfare, which includes a variety of positions as a naval officer; or the Marines, where he could serve in air, ground or support divisions.
While every graduate serves the minimum of five years, graduates who elect to serve on submarines or as pilots will undergo more training and will serve 10 years.
If he chooses the Navy, he will graduate as an ensign. If he chooses the Marines, he will come out a second lieutenant. While Hounchell says it’s still early to decide, naval aviation and the Marine Corps’ ground combat element appeal to him and he said he could see himself completing his service before pursuing other opportunities in the fields of law, business or politics. He feels having the U.S. Naval Academy on his résumé will serve him well no matter what he decides to do next.
“There aren’t many places that care what your major is after they see five years of service in a leadership position on your résumé,” he said. “Your major becomes somewhat moot after that point.”
When he logs onto Facebook and sees the vastly different lifestyle his friends have at other colleges, Hounchell sometimes feels pangs of homesickness or thinks about a more conventional college experience. But overall, he says, the effort has been worth it.
“In the long run, I’m really happy with where I am, and I’m really happy with my decision to be here,” he said.
JOSEPH HOUNCHELL OF Cornwall, center, at a Statehouse ceremony last spring stands with Sen. Patrick Leahy, to his immediate left, and Rep. Peter Welch, right, as well as his parents, Eric and Julie. At the time a senior at Middlebury Union High School, Hounchell was one of 24 young Vermonters to be nominated by members of the Vermont Congressional Delegation to the U.S. Service Academies’ class of 2019.
Photo credit Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy