Fourth Class Midshipman Dane Vernor, a graduate of the Ennis High School Class of 2020, is living out his dream at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Nine months away from home at The Academy, and he beams, “I really like it here. Plebe year (definition: a newly entered cadet or freshman, especially at a military academy) is supposed to be the hardest experience you will have. The U.S. Naval system is trying to weed you out, to make sure the ones that remain really want to be there.”
Vernor continues, “There are a lot of things that I didn’t anticipate to happen – such as all the little things you do as a plebe – memorizing rates (which are details about USNA, the United States Naval Academy), chopping up and down the hallways (we must hustle everywhere we go and must take 90 degree angles to turn), etc. That’s all for preparation for becoming an officer in the future. Basically, this means dealing with adversity, to be rewarded in the end.”
As Vernor’s exams concluded and after his last semester was completed for his first year, he has now been moved-up in rank to “Third Class” Midshipman. He recently became a part of what is called “Sea Trials,” which is a capstone event for plebes.
Rigorous training programs
Vernor explains, “These Sea Trials are very rigorous, and I would say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. We compete as companies and engage in about 15 different obstacle-type courses. Mixed into that are other types of fitness challenges like hand-to-hand combat wrestling.
“For instance, I was chosen to do the bench press challenge for my company. I placed third with 35 reps at 155 pounds out of 30 companies. (The winner was an actual power lifter, but I beat him head-to-head on wrestling, as I forced his head into the ground and made him tap-out). During the course of the Sea Trials, it’s estimated that we run over the length of a marathon, and that is performed wearing combat boots. It was amazingly tough, but I felt an extreme sense of accomplishment when I completed the tasks.”
This summer, Vernor is in the midst of a program called “Protramid.” This training covers a sampling of all the different communities that the Navy has to offer.
The first week, he was learning all about submarines – how they integrate into the Navy and all the functions they perform. He was able to ride on a couple of them and see the insides.
Vernor remarks, “The subs are truly amazing vessels. The next week I was part of the aviation crews. We flew with pilots on several different aircraft to test those – helicopters, prop planes, and jets of all sizes. This week I’m to be working with the Marine Corps. We’ll learn about all their different duties and activities. From there, we’ll go rucking (“rucking” is the military term for hiking under load) and several other events with them. It will be interesting because they’re kind of secretive about their community. My last week will be with surface ships. We’ll tour with destroyers, cruisers, and carriers.”
Classroom training and a routine day
“Obviously”, says Vernor, “Classes are huge at The Academy.”
He admits that he spends a great deal of time in the classroom, but even more outside of classes with homework. For every hour in class, he relays that he probably works 60 to 90 minutes (depending on the week) studying for tests, reading, writing essays, and doing projects.
Vernor explains a regular day and his schedule at The Academy, as follows: “After plebe summer ended, I generally wake up at 0600 hours. Due to COVID protocols, we never ate in King Hall. We had to pick up our meals and go eat in our rooms. Breakfast was usually over by 0715 hours and we’d head to formation to make sure everyone was accounted for. Class would begin at 0745 hours and that would generally go to 1145 hours. Then we would have the noon formation. The entire brigade would be standing at attention at that time. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.
“We’d grab lunch directly afterwards and then head back to class until 1530 hours. As a varsity track and field athlete, I’d then have practice until about 1900 hours. After that, I’d grab supper and start doing homework until I fell asleep. Much of the weekend had homework duties as well. At times I would also have watch duty. We’re not supposed to
actively do homework at that time, but at least during that lull I could mull over how I was going to attack an essay or go over test subject matter in my head.”
He continues, “Some people at The Academy will run 30 to 40 miles per week. Fortunately for me, as a discus thrower athlete, my physical activity is accomplished with the throwing and lifting. That’s as hard or harder than straight running in my opinion. But it is a very run-based school for the normal midshipmen”.
COVID limited Vernor’s track and field chances last year
Vernor says, “The track schedule was very abbreviated this year. The competitions were just dual meets and I participated in one indoor and two outdoor meets. It was a tough year for me. I lost over 20 pounds during plebe summer and recovering from that was very hard with COVID. It seemed like every three weeks we’d be confined to quarters for two weeks and just receiving the proper nutrition to grow muscle was hard. Lifting was also constantly interrupted.
“I have already made gains just from late April though. Our COVID protocols were largely lifted at that time since we were all vaccinated. I’ve been lifting incredibly hard and cramming protein as much as I can. I’m already back to only being five pounds down from when I stepped on campus almost one year ago. I will be throwing far again, come my second year. Hopefully the track season will be back to normal by next spring.”
A father’s perspective
Danny Vernor, Dane’s father, explains how hard this past year has been for him, his wife, and their other son and daughter. The elder Vernor says, “I’m sure it is hard for any parent to have the first child leave the home to go off on their own. It is particularly hard to have one go to one of the service academies because you know how difficult his or her life is about to become. Dane is such a great person that we had a big void hit us in our household. With COVID, we couldn’t even go on the campus to say goodbye (like normal years), so we just sent him on the plane by himself. On the morning he was leaving, I saw Danoh (that is what I call Dane) standing in the middle of his room, looking around, trying to hold back the tears. He was about to leave the only home he had ever known.
“He was excited to start the next chapter of his life, but there was also the realization of finally leaving. It was tough watching his plane depart, and it was a long ride back home from the airport for the entire Vernor family.”
Mr. Vernor continues, “We knew that time would help, and it slowly did. All the plebes were confined to quarters for the first two weeks. The top brass felt the new recruits were under undue strain, so the USNA email addresses were assigned and the new midshipmen were allowed to communicate via that means. This wasn’t typical for The Academy at all.”
“One day I was driving Heath, my younger son that also competes in discus throwing, to a discus lesson, when a message popped up on my phone and the subject line had, ‘It’s Danoh!!!!!’ I handed the phone to Heath to immediately respond. We spent the next hour corresponding with him until he was instructed to shut it down and get off the phone. We all felt much better from that point on, since we had been allowed the luxury of some verbal communication with our son.”
Says father Vernor, “We’ve gone to Annapolis to visit three times as a family and we’ve sent Heath there another two times to visit his brother. We’d like to go more often, but it is very expensive to travel with the whole crew. Dane is so busy, that we mainly dialogue through texting because he usually can’t immediately grab his phone. He has now completed his most difficult year, so we’ll be able to check in with him more frequently now, and that is a great blessing to our family.”
Vernor has been very pleased with this choice of accepting his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He says, “It was just the greatest college opportunity that I could have ever hoped for. It is the best way to develop myself. Honestly, it is not the most fun choice, especially this year with plebe and COVID aspects, but I feel it helps me be the best person and leader I can be to help my country, my family, and myself. I thank God for the opportunity I have here every day.”
He will be back home for his first visit to Ennis soon, though: “I’ll be back in the great State of Texas from June 25-July 25. I am really looking forward to seeing everyone again. I haven’t been home in many months, so it makes the return all the sweeter.”