Kris Weible practices a rescue exercise at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla. on Aug. 1. (Paul Stefon / The Associated Press)
Naval officer candidates line up for training at the Pensacola Naval Air Station on Aug. 1. (Paul Stefon / The Associated Press)
PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. — The 56 recent college graduates who lined up near an old sea wall on a steamy summer morning wanted to be naval officers.
It wouldn't be easy — but those who survived the three months of training would be the final class to graduate from Officers Candidate School at the nation's oldest Naval Air Station.
For 68 years young men and women have morphed into confident naval officers here during intensive training overseen by Marine drill instructors. Richard Gere portrayed an officer candidate in the 1982 mega-hit "An Officer and A Gentleman." The movie was set at a fictional naval air station and filmed elsewhere, but was based on the Pensacola school.
When class 20-07 — the 20th Pensacola officer class of 2007 — graduates Sept. 21, the school will close and consolidate with training at Newport, R.I., under military realignment plans.
"Hundreds of classes have suffered out there on the grinder, the parade deck and we are going to be the last class doing it," said Allen Hamby, a 21-year-old admiral's son and University of Central Florida graduate who plans to be a supply officer, two months into training.
His classmates, standing nearby, nodded in agreement as he said, "You either limp through it or you go out with a bang to show people what's up."
The class's first morning did not begin auspiciously. Ten minutes after reporting for duty last July, a few lost their composure, their voices cracking as instructors barked commands over the ocean breeze. It was a first taste of military discipline for some.
"Every time you are given a command you will respond ‘aye sir'," an instructor yelled.
"When you stand at attention your heels are together and your feet are straight out."
When one candidate was slow answering a question, an instructor scrawled "Goldfish" on masking tape and stuck it on his back.
"Goldfish die after a week, you know that? We might have to change your name to ‘Gnat,' though, because gnats only live for day," he said.
The candidate listened and did not respond.
For Pensacolans accustomed to seeing officer candidates out on the town in their dress white uniforms, an era is ending.
"It is one of those things you don't appreciate until they tell you it's going," said Jack Williams, whose family owns Seville Quarter, a popular block of clubs and restaurants that's frequented by the officer candidates.
"We will miss seeing them walking around downtown and coming in here and checking their hats in our gift shop," he said.
Over the years, he's taken some early morning calls from candidates who forgot to retrieve their hats before leaving his bar. And he's headed off a few fights.
"It's rare that you have to make a call out to the school, but it does happen. They train them to be confident and that comes out some times. Usually it's about a girl or someone looking at a girl," he said.
The school closing is also the end of an era at the base where candidates run along the streets in their navy blue shorts and white T-shirts, and the sound of instructors putting candidates through their morning push-ups and marching drills often filters into offices.
"Every time we come across people out on the base they let us know how long they have been supporting the officer candidate program and how sad they are to see it go," said William Brinkmeyer, an officer candidate from the final class.
Flight training at Pensacola Naval Air Station dates to 1914, but those original aviators came as officers from the U.S. Naval Academy. The base began officer training for aviators in 1936. In 1994, the Aviation Officer School was combined to include candidates in other career fields.
"It's been such a visible aspect of the base for such a long time," base historian Hill Goodspeed said.
And Marine drill instructors have always overseen the training.
"Every candidate I've ever talked to always remembers their drill instructor because they are such a dominating presence, a larger-than-life presence," Goodspeed said.
The drill instructor for class 20-07 is Gunnery Sgt. Jason Jones, a veteran of two Iraq combat tours. His gravely voice comes from years of yelling commands.
"You'd be surprised how many people say I have a problem with my voice or something is wrong with the way I speak, but the candidates learn real quick to understand what I'm talking about," said Jones, who stands with perfect posture and gazes with a classic Marine thousand-yard stare.
He was quick to remind 20-07 of its place as the last of thousands of classes to march on the parade field and run the streets of Pensacola Naval Air Station.
"Go out with a bang," he told candidates, including William Gum.
Gum, 25, was teaching high school math and science when he enlisted to chase a dream of being a Navy pilot. He asked to attend officer training in Pensacola before the school closed.
"Pensacola is the place to go if you are a naval aviator. When I am out there doing drills and the Blue Angels are flying around, I try not to look at them because the drill instructor doesn't like it, it sounds cheesy but it makes the hairs on your arms stick up," he said.
He will attend flight school in Pensacola after graduating officer training.
Jamie Steffensmeir, a 23-year-old former college and arena league football player who wants to serve in Iraq, struggled in training because of his bulk. He'd lost 15 pounds before reporting, but his hunger was hard to overcome.
Candidates are required to eat their meals using only a large metal "war spoon."
"There were times when my stomach would be growling and everyone would be laughing," he said. "You'd be amazed how you can eat a piece of fried chicken or peel a banana with the war spoon."
About two months into the training, he estimated he'd dropped about 20 pounds and was down to about 205.
Class 20-07 itself dropped 25 of its 56 candidates — Goldfish was one of the casualties.
As graduation approached, students became more confident in their futures as Navy officers.
"The entire experience is worth too much to give up. We are starting to come together as a class and it is starting to be fun," said candidate Julie Wonder, 22. A University of Oregon architecture graduate, she had said a month earlier that each day she felt she was reaching her breaking point but was continuing to push through.
Lt. Scott Kykendall, an instructor and naval aviator, will return to Iraq instead of moving to Rhode Island. As he watched officer candidates maneuver an obstacle course, he said Pensacola will always be a unique place, especially for would-be aviators starting their Navy careers.
"It's just so motivating in the mornings to run students around these streets and see the history. When you think about the people who have gone through flight training here — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John McCain. Need I say more? They are walking the same streets as those individuals," he said.
http://www.navytimes.com/news/2007/07/navy_officercandidate_schoolmoving_070728w/">After final class, OCS to move north in fall