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Around The Fleet

Preparing To Be a Plebe

Enlisted Sailors, Marines Excel at Naval Academy Prep School

When Indoctrination Day begins at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the newest batch of nervous, anxious and sweaty plebes (midshipmen 4th class) hurry around the majestic, riverfront campus from one processing station to the next. They receive a crash course in military bearing. However, about 270 of them are ready for the challenge.

They are called "Napsters," and they are midshipmen who initially attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) in Rhode Island. At the prep school, they had the chance to boost their academic, military and physical performances for 10 months prior to reporting to the academy.

They already know how to march, salute and repeat commands verbatim; they are physically fit and can pass the required fitness test; they're familiar with the rigors and routines of the Naval Academy; and some already know how to lead.

Of the 270 candidates, about 80 percent come from the civilian world, typically high school. The balance comprises highly experienced, prior-enlisted Sailors and Marines - "priors."

Making up approximately 20 percent of the NAPS Battalion, the prior-enlisted are sought out for advice. Their Navy and Marine Corps sea stories provide insight to the direct-entry accessions, as to what lies in store for them in the fleet." - Mark Donahue, NAPS command services director.

At the same time, the transition from independent military service member to trainee presents challenges, but also allows prior-enlisted service members to flourish.

"I think as a prior-enlisted [Sailor], being humbled ... has definitely been a challenge for me, because in my last job, you figure out what you have to do and you just do it. No one's really telling you," said Midshipman Candidate Toni Melton from Uvalde, Texas, who was previously a intelligence specialist 3rd class. "It definitely made me think for myself, and that made me want to help [my fellow midshipmen] more to work as a team. I definitely think that my prior experience has helped me in the face of just understanding that I can't do it by myself. I have to have my team with me."

Melton was standing 12 hour shifts before she arrived at NAPS, but thinks mastering the time-management and study skills offered in the program before she gets to the Naval Academy is crucial.

"The great thing about NAPS is that they have an entire class dedicated to study skills, so I'll be able to learn my way of studying," said Melton. "I think it's important for prior-enlisted personnel to go to NAPS just to get that 'OK, we're back in school, this is the normal routine.'"

That new normal is far from Midshipman Candidate David Sartoph's experience. From Midlothian, Virginia, he was stationed aboard the colossal Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) as a cryptologic technician 3rd class petty officer before coming to NAPS. He was part of a team that handled top-secret intelligence, providing indication and warning for his carrier strike group to make big decisions in support of the overall mission.

Photo collage of NAPS.

His sister entered college just before he finished high school, and, facing the dilemma of financing double, simultaneous college tuitions, Sartoph's parents had encouraged his difficult decision to pursue military service first.

"I realized that enlisting would have been a great opportunity for me to get some experience in the Navy and figure out what it's all about, and, at the point where I do go to college, I'll be older, wiser, have a better sense of purpose and have a solid idea of what I want to do," said Sartoph. "I wanted to be an officer ... so I just spent the past two and a half years as an enlisted Sailor, working my way up to the point where I can switch over."

In fact, Sartoph hopes to become a pilot, and believes the structured regimen at NAPS will help him meet the rigors of the Naval Academy.

The financial reward of becoming a commissioned officer means that excelling at NAPS and USNA is also a necessity for Midshipman Candidate Austin Shellhammer from Middleburg, Pennsylvania. The soft-spoken Sailor had to be the "man-of-the-house" for his younger siblings during a childhood rife with economic difficulties.

"It keeps me motivated," said Shellhammer, a former machinist's mate (nuclear) 3rd class. "My brother and sister look up to me. We have five generations of military [service members], and I'm hopefully going to be the first officer of our family, so I have a lot of weight on my shoulders to make sure I do well."

While at NAPS, direct-accession and prior-enlisted service members are inducted during the same process and are given equal opportunities to excel. However, because of their knowledge of military training and leadership experiences gained during boot camp and in the fleet, the priors almost immediately take charge, helping their inexperienced classmates so that the collective can succeed.

Photo collage of NAPS.

"The prior-enlisted Sailors and Marines at NAPS provide critical leadership to the direct-entry midshipman candidates." said Donahue. "The priors earn the respect of their direct-entry classmates through showing mutual respect to all in the NAPS Battalion."

Midshipman 1st Class Derek Moorehead, 1st Company executive officer, detailed from Annapolis to NAPS, noted that while peer leadership can be stressful, there's a lot of prior-enlisted who step forward. He should know. He's a graduate of NAPS himself.

On the other hand, prior-enlisted candidates who have sea or deployment time may have a difficult time being told what to do by midshipmen who haven't had that experience, according to Moorehead.

"On the midshipmen side, you're trying lead them and get their respect and have that credibility with them. We need to do that by illustrating that while we may not know necessarily what the fleet is like, we absolutely know what the academy is like, and we know what it takes to succeed there. So that's where our source of expertise comes from and that's what we try to help them with," he added.

In the process, they forge tight bonds. Donahue noted that in many ways, the NAPS connection transcends even the Naval Academy connection. "Napsters" have been referred to as a fraternity within a fraternity because most direct accessions to the Naval Academy don't know any of their new classmates.

There's only about 270 of us creating that family before we get to the academy, and they're going to be people that I'm going to be in the fleet with who I'm going to really connect with because we shared this place together." -Toni Melton

This deep camaraderie between classmates has been responsible for propelling many distinguished NAPS graduates to the highest levels of personal accomplishments and civil service.

For example, the prep school has graduated three Medal of Honor recipients, and 15 current flag or general officers are former graduates. Captain Chris Cassidy, current chief of the NASA Astronaut Office, is also a NAPS graduate.

So is retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen (NAPS '72), former commander of Central Command. He once told Donahue that "NAPS gave me all I needed to not only succeed at the Naval Academy, but also to become an officer of Marines. My NAPS experience would not only sustain me through the four demanding years of Annapolis, but would be a touchstone of values for many years thereafter. I cannot commend the program strongly enough."

Editor's note: To learn more about the U.S. Naval Academy and how to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps, visit For more information about NAPS, visit