This fall, some of Manhattan’s preppiest young men will be dressed in fatigues as they set ambushes, jump barbed wire and dodge flying pellets. No, they won’t be attending a paint-ball-themed birthday party. They’ll be in training for real combat, in the military. In recent months, I keep running into boys I grew up with who, fresh out of Harvard, Trinity or Yale, are opting to join the armed forces instead of spending their senior years sending out résumés, vying for interviews at Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs and stocking up on dark blue Brooks Brothers suits and Thomas Pink herringbone shirts. As I always saw it, Buckley gym parties and dodgeball in the park prepared these Upper East Side boys for upper-school track, prep-school baseball and maybe even Ivy League lacrosse. But for Special Forces shock raids?
Even before 9/11, these boys told me, they had decided that they weren’t eager to be on the bottom rung of the ladder in some bureaucratic company. They wanted to go out in the world and serve their country rather than fetch the coffee. “I knew I didn’t want to start the job I would have for the next 50 years right out of college,” said Jamie Devine, who went to Buckley and St. Mark’s and graduated from Trinity College in May. Mr. Devine has worked at Lehman Brothers as a summer intern, but doesn’t want to go back to finance until later. He decided to join the Marines, mostly because of his father’s service in the Navy in World War II and his work afterward in the C.I.A. “Back then, everyone served right out of school. It was just something you did,” Mr. Devine said. “Our generation has nothing compared to the WWII generation. All anyone wants to do now is get out and start making money.”
Rylan Hamilton, who went to Groton and graduated from Harvard in June, joined the Navy mainly because of his family’s history in World War II. His roommate, Elbridge Colby, whose grandfather had been the director of the C.I.A., was thinking about the armed services, and so Mr. Hamilton was inspired to explore. He discovered that two of his uncles had served for four years and that his grandfather had seen heavy combat in the Pacific during World War II. Mr. Hamilton was swayed by the advice of veterans who had served with his family. He was also attracted to the Navy’s leadership opportunities: “Nowhere else can you be in charge of 20 people and hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment at the age of 23,” he said. Another Harvard 2002 grad, Brian Smith, decided to join the military in high school because his brother had gone to West Point and his father had flown helicopters in Vietnam. Buckley, Groton and Harvard student Renny McPherson’s father also served in the military, and Renny plans to join after he finishes his last year of Harvard.
While most of these boys had planned on entering the service before or during college, Sept. 11 helped solidify their plans. “If I had not been thinking seriously about the Navy before that date, I probably would feel a little nervous about joining, being afraid that the decision was based on too much emotion,” said Mr. Hamilton. “However, because it was already an option, Sept. 11 just reinforced the reasons why serving was so important and vital to our nation. If another terrorist attack occurs, there is no other place I would rather be than the Navy,” he added. Mr. Devine, too, was not about “to sit back and ignore everything and get a real job,” he said.
Since most of the boys I spoke to did not have an ROTC or Navy scholarship, they had to enroll in O.C.S., or Officer Candidate School, which entails either 10 weeks of boot camp or two separate six-week sessions. After this program, you are eligible for basic training. “I really like O.C.S.-but not the boot-camp part, of course,” said Mr. Devine. “At O.C.S., they see if you’re capable of being a leader, but it isn’t until basic training that they teach you how to be a leader.” At O.C.S., aspiring soldiers endure grueling physical and mental conditioning. They’re only allowed to sleep four or five hours a night, and they can’t talk to each other at mealtime. There is no time to think. When a friend of mine returned from O.C.S., I asked him whether he’d learned to shoot a bazooka. He cracked up, saying, “They don’t let us near those things!” Apparently, the idea is to see how much stress you can take, not how well you aim a weapon.
After O.C.S.-if you can survive it-the next step is basic training. Mr. Devine and eventually Mr. McPherson will go to Quantico to learn land navigation and defense strategies and get their pistol and rifle certification. After six months, you get your M.O.S. (military occupation specialty). “I want to be in the infantry, ideally, or else ground intelligence or human intelligence,” said Mr. Devine. “I want a combat M.O.S.; I don’t want to be sitting behind a desk.” On average, there are two slots a year in intelligence. In infantry, Mr. Devine would graduate in May and then take another training course; in July, he’d be assigned to a camp. “I’d train my own platoon and then, after a few months, head off to the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean or wherever, depending on what happens in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” he said.
Mr. Hamilton still has to go through O.C.S. He majored in applied math with economics at Harvard, and because of his math background, the naval recruiting headquarters gave him a spot in a surface-warfare officer school after he got a security clearance and passed a physical. After boot camp, Mr. Hamilton will attend 20 weeks of training in Newport, R.I., then be assigned to a ship.
Why go through all of this training and conditioning, then put your life at risk? As a recent graduate myself, I can’t fathom how anyone my age could be eager to go to war, to fight for their country, to actually lead people. At Chapin, the most intricate defense tactics I learned were in our self-defense classes, where 15 or so little girls in blouses and bloomers would line up and chant “Eyes! Eyes! Nose! Groin! Solar plexus!” after sensei , who aggressively punched the air. Garbage ball was taxing to my nerves, and we threw Styrofoam balls, not hand grenades. In college, sports teams came a little closer, perhaps, to basic training. Early-morning practices and long afternoons in the weight room got you into good shape, and the coaches sounded a lot like drill sergeants. But you were training to beat Georgetown or U.V.A., not another country. Summer-intern hours, many of us felt, were roughing it, but try running 10 miles at O.C.S.
“The discipline, responsibility and integrity” he will acquire is one of the payoffs Mr. Hamilton sees in joining the Navy. Serving in the military can be invaluable to your future, too: “I have no doubt that my experience in the Air Force will prepare me well for other jobs,” said Mr. Smith.
Mr. Hamilton told me that he was talking with a sub-mate of his father’s before he joined. “You should have seen the glow in his face when he told me the pride he felt knowing that he contributed to our victory in the Cold War. All the time he spent under the North Pole in a submarine meant something.” As for his own naval aspirations: “Hopefully, when I’m his age, I too can look back on my naval experience with the same feeling of pride.