Starkey: Navy experience unforgettable

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 10:56 p.m.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The purpose of this Saturday gathering is a football game, of course, but it feels so much bigger than that as you enter the hallowed gates of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Everywhere you turn, you are humbled.

The bright-eyed blonde who captains the cheerleading team? She is a midshipman, too, just like her father and brother before her. She likely is ticketed for the Navy Supply Corps and perhaps a deployment to Afghanistan or some other faraway place.

She is willing to put her life at risk for you and for everyone you love.

“That's why I signed up,” says Brittany Bly, a Naval Academy senior from Wilkes-Barre. “You have to do something greater than yourself. That's where the reward is: to better your country and to better other countries.”

On the opposite sideline, you strike up a conversation with a member of the chain gang. You're thinking he's a regular guy working on odd job.

Turns out he is a 1978 Plum graduate named Gary Sandala — and he is far from regular. He flew fighter planes for 28 years, including a stint in Operation Desert Storm.

Outside the stadium, on a glorious afternoon glimmering in gold and blue (both teams' colors), the Navy tailgate parties are arranged by graduation year. You are drawn to the sign that reads “Class of 1945” and to the three old men behind it.

One is 92-year-old Bill Campbell, a former Navy lacrosse captain from Philadelphia. He explains that the Class of '45 graduated in 1944, a day after the Invasion of Normandy.

Campbell soon would join the fray. He participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, where the Navy took control of the seas, sinking 23 enemy warships.

Sharp as a tack, Campbell recounts the Battle of Surigao Strait (part of Leyte) as he slowly walks toward the gates. It is remembered as the last battleship-versus-battleship action in military history. Five of the six U.S. ships had been restored after being damaged or sunk at Pearl Harbor.

Campbell says his ship fired the torpedo that sunk the famous Japanese battleship Fuso.

Is he glad he chose to attend the Naval Academy?

“Oh, hell yeah,” he says.

Justin Kischefsky is one of Navy's associate sports information directors. He gives you a pregame tour of the stadium. He is a Marquette graduate who took a job here in the late 1990s. He tells stories of courage and bravery authored by various athletes who were serving overseas within months of their final athletic contest here.

Some of the stories end tragically. When they do, Kischefsky and his colleagues feel as if they have lost a family member.

“That's what makes it so hard to leave,” he says.

Kischefsky might be a Marquette man, but he raises a point about the Naval Academy that rings true, especially now that you are watching the “Midshipmen March” before the game.

“If you're American,” he says, “you have a connection to this place.”

Look around at the stadium walls, and you do not see a Navy Football Wall of Fame. You see a simple list of faraway places and battles, printed in plain blue lettering. On the wall behind Sandala you see “Normandy,” “Okinawa” and “Leyte Gulf.” Above that, on the second level, “Pearl Harbor” is the one that jumps out.

On the other side, next to where the cheerleading team warms up, the latest theaters are listed: Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq.

It makes you wonder where some of these Navy football players will wind up and how soon. You ask Pitt defensive lineman Bryan Murphy if, amid a tough loss, he found himself thinking the same thing.

“I was thinking about it before the game, during the game and after the game,” Murphy says. “You can't not respect them with what they do and how hard they work. They're the nicest kids in the world, too. I tip my cap to them 150 percent.”

As the gun sounds, the Navy players turn to their fellow midshipmen for “Blue and Gold,” sung after every game. Behind them, near midfield, Pitt players and coaches show their respect by gathering to watch.

On the wall under the midshipmen, there is nothing to the right of “Iraq.” Just a long blank space, reserved, sadly, for the inevitable theaters to come — for more faraway places where incredible people like Brittany Bly will go to risk their lives for you, and for everyone you love.

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