Ensign speaks on military brotherhood

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 30, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

During his freshman year at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Dan Peters was lounging in his room one night, preparing to dose off. A professor had once told him, &uot;If you get more than five hours of sleep a night, you’re cheating the government,&uot; and a naval student’s day normally runs from 6:30 a.m. to past midnight, so Peters needed all the shuteye he would get.

Suddenly, a group of upperclassmen burst into his room, and began tearing it apart. It was just one more way of making life rough for the up-and-comers at the school, and Peters had known that this type of &uot;initiation&uot; might happen sooner or later.

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Suddenly, an enormous young man stepped into the room. The fellow, a senior to Peters’ freshman (or plebe, as the new ones are called at Navy), introduced himself as Ron Winchester.

&uot;You play football, don’t you?&uot; Winchester asked Peters, then a member of the Navy scout (youngest) squad.

&uot;Yes, sir,&uot; said Peters.

&uot;You don’t have to call me sir,&uot; said Winchester, and asked Peters to accompany him into Winchester’s room.

&uot;He told me that I didn’t have to put up with that,&uot; Peters told the Nansemond-Suffolk Pop Warner football league fathers at the annual Dad’s Night Out Thursday evening at the Lee Jordan Club House.

&uot;I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He glared at me.&uot;

It wouldn’t be the last time the two would meet – but, for Peters, it would be the easiest. Out on the football field, Winchester and fellow senior Scott Swatner used the Nebraska native as their personal tackling dummy.

&uot;They killed me,&uot; Peters said with a laugh. &uot;They’d double team me, roll me down the hill, and laugh at me. Then they’d extend their hands and help me back up.&uot;

Playing wide receiver, defensive back, and everywhere else the coaches asked was California native J.P. Blecksmith, a year older than Peters. One of the best quarterbacks in his homeland, Blecksmith had traveled all the way across the country to attend the naval academy, only to find out that the team rarely threw the ball. Undaunted, Blecksmith stayed at the school, and followed in the footsteps of his father Edward (who earned three Purple Heart awards in Vietnam), becoming a Marine.

After graduation, Winchester and Blecksmith entered the U.S. Marine Corps. Winchester made it to first lieutenant; Blecksmith to second.

Winchester completed one tour of duty in Iraq, and was eight days into his second on Sept. 3. As his unit marched outside Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded, severely injuring Winchester.

&uot;He kept asking, ‘How are my men?’&uot; Peters said. &uot;’How are my marines? Are they OK?’&uot;

Two hours later, Winchester was dead at 25.

&uot;Ron took care of me like I was a little brother,&uot; said an emotional Peters. &uot;He was the epitome of a leader; always looking out for someone else.&uot;

On Veteran’s Day, Blecksmith was helping his men out of a building in Fallujah. After making sure that all of his men had gotten out safely, the lieutenant started to leave. Suddenly, a sniper’s shot rang out, and Blecksmith, 24 was killed instantly.

&uot;We knew what the future might hold,&uot; Peters said. &uot;Did they know that they were going to die? No, but they knew it was a possibility, and that it was something greater than themselves.&uot;

After graduating from high school in 1997, Peters hoped that his days on the gridiron were through. He enlisted in the Navy, and studied nuclear engineering for the next two years. In 1999, he enrolled at the Naval Academy prep school to become reacquainted with academics.

&uot;They thought I’d forgotten everything I’d learned in school,&uot; he said with a laugh.

The next summer, he headed to the academy, and decided to strap the pads back on.

&uot;I missed it,&uot; he said. &uot;I said, ‘Why not? Everyone dreams of playing Division I ball.’&uot;

Then came another round of boot camp (it was actually his third, counting the one upon enlistment and that which occurred before prep school). Juniors and seniors blared orders upon their plebeians, even if said detainees were older than them, as Peters was.

&uot;It was a good opportunity to help the people I didn’t know,&uot; Peters said of his younger fellow prisoners. &uot;It was a mentoring opportunity.

&uot;In one word, busy,&uot; Peters said of his experience as a student, solider and athlete all at once. &uot;Every morning, we’d get in formation, and we had weekly inspections. We’d have classes on professional leadership, tactic courses, everything. Everything was scrutinized. You had to shave everyday, and keep everything clean.&uot;

But there was at least one time of the season when the Midshipmen had permission to get as dirty as possible – their annual battle with Army.

&uot;That’s the purest rivalry in all of sports,&uot; Peters said, proudly displaying a sheet of Navy stationary with &uot;Beat Army,&uot; emblazoned on the bottom. &uot;For four hours, we hate each other, but afterward, we share a brotherhood. We’re not playing to get in the BCS, or to get some big boosters. We’re playing for our friends, our brothers, ourselves. We’re thinking of Joe Sailor or Joe Solider out there busting his (butt) for our country, and we’ll be joining him soon.&uot;

His team won just one game during Peters’ freshman year – but it was the most important one. The next September, he was returning to his room from practice as his team prepared to battle Northwestern. A teammate came up to him, and told him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

&uot;I thought he was messing with me,&uot; Peters said. &uot;I walked into my room, and everyone was just standing there. Rumors go around the campus like nobody’s business, so we thought that they might attack us.&uot;

The campus went into lockdown, and the students were allowed to eat in shifts, strategy being that a crash into the cafeteria would kill just a few hundred, instead of the entire student body.

The Midshipmen didn’t take home any wins that year, but came back to defeat their longtime rival in Peters’ junior season. That summer, he made a trip that would change his life.

&uot;I spent a month at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland,&uot; he said. &uot;That was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.&uot;

He checked out F-18s, learned about life as a military pilot, and got a pilot’s license.

&uot;It’s my dream to fly jets,&uot; he said.

After helping the Navy squad to an 8-5 season (including a 34-6 trouncing of Army) in his farewell year, Peters graduated, and went to work as an assistant strength coach for the team. His work paid off once again – the team went 10-2 last season, defeating not just Army, but New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl.

It was one more farewell for Peters; the ensign will leave next week for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., where he’ll start flight training to make his dream come true. But first, he had one last sad goodbye and heartfelt reunion to make.

On Jan. 15, Sgt. Jayton Patterson, a marine from Wakefield and friend of the family of Peters’ fianc\u00E9e, was killed when he stepped on a land mine in Iraq. Just over a week later, Peters was sitting in the pews at Patterson’s funeral. Just after the service started, a man in uniform walked through the door. Peters glanced over, and tried to remember where he’d seen the face.

Then it came to him. It was Swatner, who’d helped beat him down and build him up on the Navy football fields.

As the two men were reacquainted, their conversation went to the brotherhood, the tie that binds every military member together.

&uot;If we lose a military brother,&uot; Peters said, &uot;it’s just like losing a member of the family. We have SEALS in Iraq and Afghanistan, pilots dropping bombs in Afghanistan, Seabees rebuilding Iraq. We’re bringing freedom and democracy to people that have been oppressed for so long. Terrorists in Iraq see this as their Super Bowl, so they’re dumping everything they have on it. They know that if we win and democracy is planted, it will spread; it’s infectious.

&uot;I’m not here to make a political statement,&uot; he said. &uot;Even if people don’t believe the war in Iraq is right, remember the men. Remember Ron. Remember Jayton Patterson. Remember the ones who served.&uot;