September 7, 2010 — Margaret Bickley was the last student on the "High Y" tightrope. Because of that, she was partnered with Gunnery Sgt. Alfonso Salazar.
Just a few weeks earlier, Bickley, 18, had taken an easier walk to pick up her high school diploma back home in Marietta, Ga. But on this August afternoon, she was poised 18 feet off the ground on a 3/8-inch galvanized steel aircraft cable, one of 13 recruits in their first week of training in the University of Virginia's Naval ROTC program.
The brand-new midshipmen arrived a week ahead of their civilian classmates for a crash course in the Navy and Marine Corps. Pushed hard by battalion staff and older midshipmen, they tasted hardship, discipline and camaraderie. Among U.Va.'s three ROTC programs – Army and Air Force are the others – the Navy is the only one requiring a week of training before classes start.
Salazar, a 33-year-old Marine from Exmore with three combat tours of Iraq, was one of their instructors.
The high-wire training was held on the Poplar Ridge ropes course operated by the University's Intramural-Recreational Sports Department. Bickley and Salazar's task seemed simple – climb wooden poles, walk on individual woven steel cables until they came together at a central cable, on which they then had to walk 25 feet to a third pole.
But the simplicity faded quickly once they were aloft, the cable revealing itself as a treacherous surface on which to walk. Completing the mission required the first-year student and the Marine veteran to work together.
Two by two, the other new midshipmen had already completed the course – some with ease, others with difficulty, but all with teamwork. Six of the new midshipmen, divided into two teams, held the ropes attached to Bickley and Salazar's safety harnesses. Two acted as spotters. The rest observed and answered questions called out by Rick Ferry, the lead facilitator at the Poplar Ridge experiential learning center, who directed the exercise.
Bickley and Salazar, each on a separate cable, pulled a rope from opposite ends to maintain their balance. They reached the junction of cables and from there, Bickley led, sliding her feet along, pulling the rope tight to maintain her balance, leaning forward, then back. Then, halfway across the cable, she lost traction, wobbled and tumbled.
Her team held fast the safety rope and she dangled in midair. A look of defeat flitted across her face, replaced rapidly by determination.
"Second time's a charm," she said. She grabbed the balancing rope, pulled herself back up to the cable and started again. (Bickley said later that she feared she lacked the upper-body strength to pull herself back up, but she hates to lose and did not want to appear foolish.)
She made it across, then sought to assist Salazar, but dropped the rope instead of handing it off to him.
"When that happened, I knew I needed to be more cognizant of my surroundings and the people I was working with," she said. "I needed to focus more on teamwork and not on my personal accomplishment."
Once Salazar arrived at the pole, Bickley shifted position to make room for him, but started to lose her balance. He grasped her wrist, and she his, and they steadied each other.
"When they first got here, everyone was looking out for themselves," Salazar said later. "By the end of the week, I could tell they could rely on each other."
The training made many of them face their fears and overcome them, with each other's help.
"This is tough," said W. Ryan Richardson, 19, of Bellaire, Md., who joined the Naval ROTC program as a second-year student. "But despite the yelling and the hard work, we are all working toward something. I've learned I can be disciplined, and that is exciting."
The ropes course exercise was one of many challenges the new midshipmen endured.
The first day they were given military haircuts – no more than four inches for the males, off the collars and ears, sideburns no longer than halfway down the ear. For the females, cut short and neat, in keeping with Navy regulations.
They were divided into two squads by lot and dressed in white T-shirts, with "Alfa" stenciled in blue or "Bravo" in red and their own names in smaller black letters across the shoulder blades. Khaki trousers and dark running shoes completed the uniform. They were introduced to each other, battalion staff and the midshipmen who would be their instructors, then given a quick first-aid course and sent to bed by 9:10 p.m.
Reveille started at 5:10 a.m., and they opened their day with physical readiness training. Orders and responses were shouted, with pop quizzes at any time. Their days were filled with fitness training, close-order drill, classes in the Navy's traditions and training in various aspects of duty.
The new midshipmen stayed together, under Navy discipline, marching in step from one task to another. They were required to acknowledge with a loud greeting all senior personnel (everyone, from their perspective), given a 10 count to move from standing at rest to having their gear off and stowed properly at their feet at the start of class. They requested permission to visit the "head," nautical terminology for the restroom. They were crash-coursed on rank structure and chain of command, sailing knots, the Navy code of conduct, Navy etiquette, uniform insignias, and how, where, when and when not to salute.
It was also an exercise for the older midshipmen as they led and instructed.
"This gives the troop handlers an opportunity to develop their leadership skills," Salazar said as he looked over close-order drill training on the grass of the McIntire Amphitheater. "Close-order drill instills discipline and teaches them how to respond to an order. This is also the first time they have worked as a team."
The students learned how to stand in formation, march to cadence and turn in formation. In the beginning, when they turned, three quarters turned one way and the rest another. The instructors got them back into formation, barking orders about where they should be, working them to precision by the end of the week.
"This produces team effort together," said Commander Timothy Watkins, watching several misturns. "That is very important. They are just getting to know each other. On Saturday, they will be doing a ceremony, marching in front of their parents."
"They take this seriously," Bickley said. "The physical training is demanding, and they push us, but they encourage us, too. The drills are challenging, but they expect more from us. They want us to be able to work in unison."
Even in the first days, the new midshipmen impressed their commander.
"This is a good bunch," he said. "They did well on the physical fitness test and set a high benchmark for themselves."
By the third day, they had worked their way to weapons training, first in the classroom and then on the Rivanna Rifle and Pistol Club firing range. They were taught weapons safety and handling, first by Salazar and then by Paul Benneche, a National Rifle Association-certified instructor. On the range, they shot paper bull's-eyes with .22-caliber target pistols and learned firing range discipline, etiquette and order. The older midshipmen served as range masters.
Several recruits had handled weapons before, while for others it was their first time. Most shot targets at around 15 meters, though one showed enough proficiency that his target was moved out to about 30 meters, with little decrease in accuracy. After all the recruits had fired their pistols, the two squads were photographed with their targets.
They performed live-fire drills in two rounds. The group not shooting was trained in field stripping and reassembling 9.5-pound, .30-caliber M-1 Gerand rifles from World War II and the Korean War. In timed competitions, one of the new recruits disassembled and reassembled the rifle in 1 minute, 8 seconds, and then in head-to-head competition, did it faster than one of the older midshipmen.
"His father was a Marine, so he's probably been doing this from a real early age," Watkins laughed.
The Navy is a family tradition for Bickley, a nursing student. She came to U.Va. because "it's been my dream school since I was in eighth grade. I have cousins who came here and I fell in love with it – the customs, the tradition the pride. The students here are much more respectful of themselves."
David Chang, 18, of Hawaii, an electrical engineering major, said the orientation week was challenging, mentally and physically.
"But it's rewarding," he said. "I am doing well, but there is much room for improvement, in my time management skills and in my ability to learn quickly and apply it directly to the onslaught of knowledge we have to learn."
Chang appreciated the discipline and camaraderie of people who have been through hardship together.
"This really a challenge that is ironically enjoyable, but not pleasurable," he said. "One great thing is that I have 12 friends with me before school even starts."
They ended their orientation week on Move-in Day, with a ceremony and close-order drill demonstration for their parents and friends, who were seeing them in their uniforms for the first time.
"They came together real well," Watkins said after the ceremony. "It was a lot of individual effort, but the point was to get them to operate as a team, and they did that."