By Joseph LacdanDecember 5, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- On a brisk fall afternoon at the U.S. Naval Academy here, four Army Cadets, clad in their grey and black covers and dark cutaway coats, stroll past a sea of Navy Midshipmen in front of Bancroft Hall, a massive architectural marvel and the world's largest singular dormitory.
The four Army Cadets, part of a group of seven on campus here, attend Navy classes, participate in Navy drills and live like Midshipmen.
The cadets, from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, joined separate Midshipmen companies in the Service Academy Exchange program at the Naval Academy. As part of the program, a handful of Midshipmen have spent the fall at West Point, attending classes at the U.S. Military academy.
The three-month program will culminate in a symbolic "prisoner exchange" during this Saturday's Army/Navy game in Philadelphia, when the Cadets and Midshipmen will take part in a ceremonial march. The Cadets will return to West Point in January.
On the Navy campus here, Christmas music can be heard playing softly in the dormitory, as the school welcomes a tour of visitors. Midshipmen in their white dress uniforms walk swiftly to classes. A Mid student stops to chat with one of the Army students, Cadet Mary Pollin, exchanging photos on their cell phones, and Naval instructors greet the future Soldiers as well.
One yells to another, Cadet Tyrus Jones: "Best Cadet in the company," as he prepares for a media interview.
The interactions with Midshipmen and instructors reflects camaraderie the Army Cadets say they have experienced in their three months in Annapolis.
They say that while there exists a friendly rivalry between the Naval Academy and their own school in New York, their experience on campus has proven to them that once they have their commissions and are in the force, they can expect to experience great working relationships with members of other services.
"I wanted to do the exchange program because I wanted to see how things were different and how they're the same here," said Pollin, whose father is a retired Navy commander. "And also, to just make connections with people who would be Navy and Marine officers, if we're ever doing joint operations."
A typical day at the Naval Academy sounds remarkably similar to one at West Point. It includes an early wakeup call, formation, breakfast, attending classes, then lunch and free time in the afternoons.
"I learned we're a lot more similar than different," said Cadet Mattias Cooper. "A lot of the Midshipmen could easily be Cadets at West Point and vice versa. I think we all have very similar motivations and ambitions. They're all excited to go serve our country."
Aside from the similarities of the two military academies, the Army Cadets noted some differences. For instance, the Naval Academy lies on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay overlooking the eastern tip of mainland Maryland -- that's a far cry from the rural woodlands that surround the West Point campus.
Cadet Gerald Lanigan said the geographic location of the Naval Academy, located near downtown Annapolis, and its proximity to both Baltimore and Washington D.C., also give the Cadets additional opportunities for sightseeing.
Jones said that while West Point has upgraded facilities, including a renovated fitness center, life at the Naval Academy is less rigid. Jones said West Point administrators expect Cadets to take part in cleaning details, while the Naval Academy lets Midshipmen to have more time to themselves.
Jones said another notable difference is the balance of military and civilian instructors at the two schools. At the Naval Academy, he said, he notices there are a lot more civilian instructors than at West Point.
But overall, Jones said, the biggest differences between the schools has to do with service culture.
"Life is different because everything is centered around the Navy," Jones said. "It's a little bit of a different lifestyle and culture between the two services. It has to do with our history and how it's evolved over the years."
It wasn't just classroom time that Cadets experienced at the Naval Academy. Several of the Cadets also competed in Midshipmen activities while exchange students.
Pollin, who has participated in West Point's NCAA women's cross country and track teams, joined the Navy's marathon club team while part of the exchange program. She ran her first marathon this fall when she competed in the 2017 Marine Corps Marathon Oct. 22.
Jones participated in the Midshipmen's infantry skills team. In his first week of classes, he took part in "Devil's Mile," a grueling, four-exercise run that includes a 400-meter low crawl. The event challenges participants both physically and mentally. Jones said several of his Midshipmen classmates on the infantry skills team took the screener test for possible candidacy into the Navy Seals.
While an exchange student at the Naval Academy, Cooper participated in his company's Frisbee team, finishing second in the brigade.
Army Cadets are bound to learn a lot while taking classes and participating in student life at the Naval Academy. And Midshipmen who are attending classes at West Point are bound to learn much as well. But their time as exchange students does eventually come to an end.
This weekend, the seven Army Cadets who spent the fall semester in Annapolis will be marched onto Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia as part of events surrounding the 118th Army-Navy football game there.
After the ceremonial march, those Cadets will be "returned" to the U.S. Military Academy as part of a "prisoner exchange." At the same time, the Midshipmen who spent the semester at West Point will be returned to the Navy.
"I think one of the memories that I will hold onto from my academy experience will be just running across that field," said Cooper.
But the friendships they formed with their Midshipmen classmates will be the most valuable memory from their three months in Annapolis, Cooper said.
"The Midshipmen I've met, especially those in my company and my roommates, have been fantastic," Cooper said. "They instantly took me into their friend group and made me part of their activities.
"What I'm going to take away most is the relationships I've made and the networks I've created."