Sea Year often puts Kings Point midshipmen in the line of fire

Aaron Seesan graduated from Kings Point in 2003. He was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005 while serving as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Courtesy U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

Like all the other midshipmen at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, Craig Losi spent his “Sea Year” learning the ropes on commercial vessels.

Over eight months, Losi sailed on three cargo ships that made port in 14 countries. But one of those voyages stood out. That was aboard Alliance New York from April to July last year when it was carrying military vehicles to the Persian Gulf to supply American and Iraqi forces.

The Armed Forces patrolling and fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan receive a lot of public attention. But without the support of the students and graduates of Kings Point who work in virtual obscurity to supply the means to conduct military operations, the fighting and patrolling would grind to a halt.

Kings Point was founded to supply merchant officers during World War II. While the graduates of the federal service academies often end up in combat zone, Kings Point students can find themselves there while they are still undergraduates. “We’re the only federal academy that sent our students into conflict,” said Capt. Gene Albert, acting director of the academy’s Professional Development and Career Services Department, which matches midshipmen and ships.

During the Sea Year, which incorporates part of their sophomore and junior years, the cadets travel full time on merchant vessels run by the government or shipping firms.

“Our job is to train future merchant mariners,” Albert explained. “We train those mariners on commercial vessels, wherever those commercial vessels go.” If those vessels enter war zones to support American military forces abroad, the cadets go there too.

midshipmen often serve aboard Military Sealift Command vessels such as Cape Texas, shown here off the coast of southwest Greece. Courtesy MedAire Inc. Courtesy Military Sealift Command

These days, Albert said, 20 to 30 percent of the midshipmen end up on government-owned or government-chartered ships carrying supplies to the Persian Gulf. That represents more than 500 cadets since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Seventy percent, or about 150, members of the Class of 2008 sailed to the Middle East during their training.

They have been joined by many Kings Point graduates. And some graduates have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as Naval Reservists called up to active duty in the Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard or as part of the one quarter of each class since 9/11 who have chosen to go into active service immediately upon graduation.

One member of the Class of 2003, Aaron Seesan, 25, of Ohio died in Iraq in 2005 while serving as an Army first lieutenant when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. A second death occurred March 27, 2009, when Navy Lt. j.g. Francis L. Toner IV of Rhode Island, Class of 2006, was killed when an Afghan insurgent fired on a group of officers inside a NATO compound at Camp Shaheen, Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Sailing into a war zone is attractive to many students. “Many of them prefer to go over there in support of the nation,” Albert said. “We have many requests from students to go aboard those vessels.”

Losi, 22, of New Hyde Park, Long Island, Class of 2009, said, “It was a good feeling to know that what we were doing — bringing over American-made armored personnel carriers to our troops in the Persian Gulf — was helping out with the effort.”

He’s also glad to be spreading the word that the U.S. Merchant Marine is actively involved in supporting American forces. “Maybe people don’t appreciate that all those tanks and heavy pieces of equipment have to go over on ships and that it’s Americans who are doing it,” said Losi, who hopes to become an officer on a Staten Island ferry or a tugboat, or go to law school after graduation in June. “It’s a good feeling to know that we were helping to spread the word on how much we help the other armed forces.”

Sailing to the Persian Gulf was memorable for other reasons. “We crossed through the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen,” Losi said, “and there’s a lot of piracy over there. We heard on the radio that there were ships checking out suspicious craft.”

“There’s quite a few pirates off the coast” as the ships approach the Persian Gulf, Albert said. “I’ve always had reports of cadets spotting pirates. Many of the vessels carry security teams,” but the cadets are not part of that. Losi said the likelihood of being attacked by terrorists in the Persian Gulf was not very high. “There’s a pretty large contingent of American forces around there, so they were keeping an eye on us,” he said. Nonetheless, “you’re still on high alert whenever you’re in that region.”

Losi’s ship entered two ports in Kuwait to deliver armored personnel carriers for American forces and one in Iraq to drop off pickup trucks for the Iraqi police. “The Iraq port security was pretty diligent,” he noted.

Midshipman Craig Losi aboard Alliance New York in the Suez Canal on its way to the Persian Gulf. The ship carries military cargo as part of MarAd’s Maritime Security Program. Courtesy Craig Losi

John Bellissimo never made it to the Persian Gulf in his sea year. But he got there after graduation when he was called up for active duty in the Navy.

Bellissimo, 36, of Manhattan, graduated in 1994. After leaving Kings Point, Bellissimo, like other midshipmen, had an eight-year commitment to the Naval Reserves unless he went into active military duty.

He was in Baghdad from October 2007 through the following October, working as a staff planner helping to reopen ports and resurrect railroads. While never under fire, he said, “Obviously there was danger of rocket and mortar attacks that you had to contend with.”

Bellissimo, a commander in the Naval Reserve who had worked for the Military Sealift Command before managing cargo operations in Port Elizabeth, N.J., and moving on to the equity capital markets in Manhattan, called his work “extremely stimulating and rewarding.”

And the Navy was pleased. He was awarded the Bronze Star. “It was for the overall impact of providing a degree of expertise and consultation to the government of Iraq,” Bellissimo said.

“It’s not the first thing that comes to mind,” Bellissimo said of the reserve commitment that academy graduates face. “But obviously supporting the force is something that’s absolutely essential to win a war or an operation. This is an example of the return of the investment on taxpayer dollars.” •

By Professional Mariner Staff