From Custer to Annapolis

By Jason Ferguson

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Sam Mertz was at a crossroads the summer before his senior year of high school. He was thinking about his post-Custer future and knew two things for certain: He wanted adventure and he wanted to receive a top-notch education.

What he didn’t know, however, was how he was going to go about achieving those goals.

Enter the U.S. Naval Academy.

Prior to his senior year of high school, 2014-15, Mertz didn’t even know what the Naval Academy was. As he gravitated toward the idea of serving his country, he thought about enlisting in the military and looked into Reserve Officer Training Corps opportunities in college. That’s when the Naval Academy first came onto his radar, to borrow military parlance.

Soon he was applying to South Dakota’s Congressional delegation seeking appointment, hoping to be one of the 1,400 men and women selected out of the 5,000 nominated by members of Congress in every state. Even though he started the process late, Mertz was nominated and later accepted into the Academy. Soon he was on his way to Annapolis, Md., to begin the life of a plebe: a newly-entered midshipman at the academy.

“Freshman year (Fourth Classman) is the most difficult in that you’re the lowest of the low,” Mertz said. “You have to call your upper classman sir and ma’am. The hardest year is plebe, based on the life of a plebe.”

That was the fall of 2015. These days, Mertz is a senior (First Classman) set to graduate in May, now leading freshmen through their plebe years. He’s gone from the one being humbled to one helping humble the younger midshipmen.

Although each day varies,, each is full of structure. On the average day, Mertz wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to work out. Plebes work out with fellow plebes and are led through the workout by upper classmen.

Formation with your company follows at 7 a.m., followed by breakfast with your company. Classes start at 8 a.m., with four classes before noon. Noon brings a public formation where the midshipmen go outside to march into lunch. Lunch is followed by two more classes, which is followed by athletics from 4-6 p.m. Every midshipman must do some athletic activity, whether it’s intramurals or varsity sports. Dinner is served at 6:30 p.m., and it’s back to your room at 7:30 p.m. Then comes homework until it’s done. Mertz tries to be in bed by midnight. He tries.

“Sometimes it doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a long day. It was definitely a change for me.”

Attending classes at the academy isn’t optional, either. Mertz once overslept a class and had to face the music which came in the form of “five days of tours,” where he and other midshipmen being punished walk in a circle with their rifle for an hour at night. It gets the point across.

“It’s supposed to humble you,” he said. “I think it’s good for me. It’s taught me a lot about discipline and being on time.”

Mertz was an athlete at CHS, playing football, basketball, track and baseball.  His athletic career took a large and unpredictable turn when he became a midshipman. He became a cheerleader.

Initially, Mertz attempted to walk onto the academy’s track team as a pole vaulter for his mandated athletic period, having pole vaulted for the Wildcats in high school. It went well for a while, but he soon became overwhelmed with the busy life of a plebe. He wanted some time to himself, so he gave up the pole vaulting.

It wasn’t long, however, before he was bored with his athletic period. A fellow plebe told him to come to cheerleader tryouts. What could it hurt, he thought.

“I didn’t like it too much, but I kept going anyway because she kept asking me to go,” Mertz said. “But I like it now.”

Being on the cheerleading squad has enabled him to not only continue a love for competing, but to travel for football games. While the midshipman football team is tossing passes and running for the end zone, Mertz and his fellow male cheerleading bases are lifting and throwing cheerleaders on the sideline in the name of school spirit.

As you can imagine, all the lifting and throwing for three hours during a game requires strength and athleticism. The former 160-pound Wildcat center has packed on 30 pounds of muscle. And, if you catch him on the right day, you might even see some tumbling from him.

“I can do back flips on a good day,” he said with a laugh.

Any football fan can tell you the annual Army-Navy game, played the second Saturday in December (usually at FedEx Field in Philadelphia), is one of the most enduring rivalries. Mertz has been to each game since arriving at the academy and calls his first experience at the game the “coolest thing he has ever been to.”

The game is full of pageantry and patriotism—future leaders of the U.S. coming together for a game played since 1890.

“They say it’s the only game in the country where everyone would be willing to die for everyone else in the stands,” Mertz said.

The Army Black Knights are on a two-game winning streak in the series, something Mertz hopes changes Dec. 8.

“Hopefully we win this year,” he said.

As Mertz approaches graduation, he looks to his future in the military. He was recently accepted into the U.S. Marine Corps Flight School. He will receive a bachelor of science degree in naval architecture and marine engineering (a ship engineering/design program) and will enter the Marines as an officer, a 2nd Lieutenant.

Mertz will first go to The Basic School, the Marines’ officer training school in Quantico, Va. Every Marine officer, including prospective pilots, must attend the school there and learn how to be an infantry platoon commander. 

“Every Marine a rifleman” is both an axiom and way of life for the Marines and something that makes it one of the leanest and meanest fighting forces on the planet. Every single enlisted Marine learns the basics of how to be an infantryman.

At some point during flight school, Mertz will have to decide which aircraft he wants to pilot. He can see himself in both jets and helicopters, so it could be a tough choice.

Most midshipmen were not allowed to leave the academy prior to last Wednesday afternoon for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, Mertz was able to leave early as part of the Academy’s Operation Info, one of the academy’s most important outreach programs. Midshipmen who participate are granted extra leave to visit their local high schools and make other appearances to promote the academy. This is an important part of the academy’s marketing and recruiting programs.

Unfortunately, Mertz said, there aren’t a large number of academy applicants from South Dakota, so anything he can do to raise awareness of the academy for a potential midshipman—before their senior year of high school, preferably—is a plus.

The academy is always in search of future leaders and, although there are no “minimum” requirements prospective applicants must meet, Mertz said those interested should seek to be well-rounded, making the grade academically as well as participating in extracurricular activities. Taking leadership roles in the school and community and volunteering are also looked upon favorably.

“It all comes down to being well-rounded; challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone,” he said. “They like to see that.”

Those who get in won’t regret it, if Mertz is any indication. He has learned life lessons aplenty at the academy, including one of his biggest challenges—learning to deal with failure. 

“Everyone is going to run into it at some point. I didn’t have that too much (in Custer),” he said. “You don’t learn much from successes. There is a lot to learn from failure.”

Being a midshipman has afforded Mertz a chance to crisscross the country, as well as travel abroad. In addition, it has introduced him to some of the finest young people this country has to offer.

There’s also the adventure thing—something he was looking for as a 17-year-old high school senior. 

He’s found that too.

“The friends and the adventures,” he said about his favorite part of having attended the U.S. Naval Academy. “I have made some awesome friends. Some of the best people I know — all-around awesome people.”

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