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Smallwood: First year is toughest
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Elizabeth Smallwood (from left), her grandfather, Charles Long, and her mother, Yolanda Long Smallwood, are shown during a family visit. (Contributed photo)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Elizabeth Smallwood wants to extend a hand of friendship and kinship to a Martinsville senior who will enter the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., this summer.

Charles Long, Smallwood’s grandfather, said Smallwood and Joseph “Joby” Halpin are among about eight students he knows of from the Martinsville-Henry County area who have been chosen to attend the academy.

Of those, only three or four have graduated, he said, adding that the way the academy is structured, it is difficult on students and their families.

Currently in Martinsville on leave, Smallwood said she hopes to meet Halpin before she returns to Annapolis later this month, partly to help him prepare for the academy and also to get to know him and offer encouragement after his induction.

Induction, she added, is the tradition for those entering the academy.

“I didn’t know anybody” when she was inducted, Smallwood said.

A Bassett High School graduate, Smallwood, 21, was inducted into the academy July 2, 2010, after receiving a congressional appointment by former 9th District U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher. She always had wanted to join the military, and she chose the academy rather than enlisting or taking ROTC in college.

After changing into her uniform and collecting her equipment that day, Smallwood was able to visit with her family only for about 45 minutes, Long said.

“I went back to the hotel room that night and cried” after realizing how long it could be before he saw his granddaughter again, he said.

Although he and other family members went to the academy to see Smallwood during events such as football games — where attendance is mandatory for plebes (freshmen), according to Smallwood — Long said it was Thanksgiving before she was allowed to return home and visit relatives and friends in Martinsville and Henry County.

Smallwood said the freshman year is the hardest on students.

When first inducted, “academics kick you in the face,” she said, and noted that she had a 3.9 grade point average in high school.

“But you’re going in with the best of the best, because everyone (inducted) is the best” from their school divisions, Smallwood said. She had to find “help classes and help people” early on at the academy to help her make the grades.

“I started out under a 2.0” in the academy. “Now, I’m more than 3.6,” she said.

After ID (induction day), appointees are not allowed to wear civilian clothes, drive or own a vehicle unless they are on leave and “can only go to town on Saturdays,” she said.

Also, trips home are not as frequent as they may be among students at other colleges, Smallwood said.

Those enrolled in the Naval Academy must remain on-base the majority of their first year, and generally on weekdays throughout their career, she said. Smallwood did not get to see her family again at home until Thanksgiving 2010, she recalled.

Inducted along with 1,199 other students, Smallwood said about 200 of her initial classmates either have given up and left or been kicked out. Many students left the first day, she added.

One student, who she said she considered a close friend, dropped out the day before their company was to make a climb signifying the end of the plebe year, Smallwood said.

“He just couldn’t take it. Daily life can really be difficult,” she said.

Because the plebe year is considered so hard, Smallwood said it prompts many to say the rigors of the academy are divided into thirds: “The plebe summer, the plebe year and the rest of your academy career.”

Plebes are considered 4th class, Smallwood said. After they graduate from their first year, they are considered third class or “youngsters,” she added.

Second class has no other identifying name or description, according to Smallwood. Seniors are considered 1st class.

She now is nearing her senior year in the academy, ready to attend to her “Ring Dance,” a tradition in which students dip their class rings into water of the Seven Seas.

Smallwood will enter the Navy when she graduates next year. She hopes for a career in surface warfare and service on a destroyer or frigate.

This summer, she will help train plebes who will be inducted this summer, she said.

She credits Long, her parents, Yolanda Long Smallwood and Orien Smallwood of Fieldale, and other family members with providing the encouragement she needed to make it through the most difficult times.

During those times, Smallwood said she learned to live “week to week and day to day.”


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