WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The Long Gray Line of cadets still drills on the impeccably groomed parade field as it has throughout the 203-year history of the US Military Academy. Reminders of the calling and challenge of military service are everywhere, from the statues of Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower to the meticulously maintained monuments to West Point's war dead.
But across the nation this year, the number of high school seniors hearing the call to service is down; applications to join the Long Gray Line dropped 9 percent. And that was the least-discouraging news for the nation's top three service academies, where room, board, and tuition for four years of a sterling education are free.
Applications for the US Naval Academy plummeted 20 percent, and the number for the US Air Force Academy fell 23 percent, military officials said.
Colonel Michael L. Jones, the West Point admissions director, speculated that the decline is linked to hazy memories among today's high school students about the galvanizing events of Sept. 11, 2001, and not to a fear of dangerous duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with recruitment down significantly for the regular Army and National Guard, some observers suggest that a drop-off in interest in the service academies is related to the hardships of the war on terror.
''All together, these factors amount to a kind of referendum on one aspect of George Bush's policy, and that's the Iraq war," said Michael T. Corgan, a Boston University professor of international relations who graduated from and taught at the US Naval Academy and served in the Vietnam War.
''Parents, in particular, are simply not encouraging their children to go into the military because, for many, this means an immediate posting to Iraq or at least to forces in that region," Corgan said.
After dramatic increases in service academy applications following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, applications nationwide for the class of 2009, which will enter college this fall, dropped for all three academies for the first time since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Applications for the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs fell to 9,604 from 12,430 last year, said Meade Warthen, the academy's chief of media relations. The Naval Academy, as of Jan. 31, reported that applications had dropped to 11,140 from 13,922 at that date in 2004. And at West Point, the number had fallen to 10,774 from 11,881, academy officials said.
The decrease occurred as many colleges and universities experienced a record number of applications. Harvard received nearly 23,000 applications, a 15 percent jump from 2004; Cornell's applicant pool was up 17 percent, and Princeton's soared 21 percent.
Jones, who served as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, said West Point is returning to its ''normal" level of recruitment after a spike in interest in which applications rose from 9,895 for the class of 2005, the last class to apply before the Sept. 11 attacks, to 10,844 for '06 and 12,692 for '07.
''The further you get from 9/11, the less the kids know about 9/11," Jones said. ''Unless there was a personal interest, the attachment to 9/11 isn't there."
''The last two years were abnormally high," said Warthen. ''What the reason for that is, no one really wants to speculate. Right now, for [the class of] '09, we're right on our five- to 10-year average."
Naval Academy officials declined to comment about the drop in their application figures.
To be considered for acceptance, applicants must receive a nomination from a member of Congress or meet certain criteria, such as being the child of a career military employee on active duty or the child of a deceased or disabled veteran.
US Representative Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat who is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that in his district, the number of applicants dropped to 24 this year, compared with 25 last year and 40 in 2003. US Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, reported a drop from 39 to 37 to 30 applicants in the past three years.
To Meehan, the decline seems symptomatic of questions about military service in general. ''Recruitment is down in nearly every category," Meehan said. ''I believe that mismanagement of the war in Iraq is having an impact."
Army officials expected to miss their May recruitment goal by 25 percent, even though the monthly goal had been reduced to 6,700 from 8,050, marking the fourth consecutive month of recruiting shortfalls. For the Army National Guard, nationwide recruiting has dropped 22 percent since 2002. In 2004, the Guard missed its recruiting goal by 12 percent.
To replenish the ranks, the government has embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign and is offering hefty enlistment bonuses.
Meehan and military officials cautioned, however, that a one-year drop in applications does not signal a trend and that the number of entering students remains relatively constant. Meehan and academy officials said the applicant pool for the class of '09 was of exceptionally high quality.
''This is a different kind of kid we're looking at now," Jones said. ''This kid is more trusting of adults. They're less self-centered than they were 10 years ago. This is a generation of kids that wants to make the world a better place."
About 80 percent of the West Point class of 2005 could serve in Iraq and Afghanistan within two years, Jones said. Despite that expectation, Jones said, the current crop of cadets is motivated by a profound sense of duty that far outweighs the free tuition.
''They know what they're getting into," Jones said. ''They get a great education, but we're about grooming Army leaders who will do the right things at the worst time of their lives."
A total of 24 West Point graduates have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bryan Herrin, 22, a cadet from Austin, Texas, who is to graduate in 2006, said he recognizes the risks he faces. The free education was a factor in his college decision, Herrin said, but his desire to serve the country was greater.
''I definitely felt like I had something to give back," Herrin said. ''I don't think combat is anything anyone wants to do. But at the same time, if that's an order, we'll carry it out."
Julie Jorgensen, 20, of Bedford, N.H., another member of the class of '06, said West Point appealed to her because of its clarity of mission. ''I didn't want to spend four years at college not knowing what I wanted to do," said Jorgensen, whose mother served as an Army doctor at Fort Devens, Mass. ''A lot of my friends [from home] have no idea what they're going to do after graduation or even if they'll have a job."
But the military option can be a tough sell. Kyle Johnson, 18, of Wenham, Mass., who graduated from high school June 5, said he didn't consider military academies. ''The way everything is going, I just didn't want to end up overseas," said Johnson, who will attend Fairfield University in Connecticut. ''I wouldn't want to end up in a place where I'd be in harm's way."
Frank Sullivan, guidance director for Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, said student interest was almost nonexistent this year. Academy recruiters visited the school once or twice this year, Sullivan said, but the presentations didn't yield any applications from the class.
Jones said recruiters are facing increasing opposition from parents around the country. ''We have a generation now that has been raised by a generation of parents who never served in the military," Jones said.
In November, a Department of Defense survey indicated that only 25 percent of parents would recommend military service to their children. In August 2003, the figure had been 42 percent. In addition, Jones said, a national survey of high school students suggested that ''80 percent of high school juniors have never heard of a place called West Point, N.Y., much less know what it did."
Despite recruitment challenges, Jones said, the 4,200-person Corps of Cadets remains highly motivated. ''There's a core group of kids out there who will continue to apply in peacetime and wartime," Jones said. ''These are kids who know what they want to do."