Midshipman Studies Abroad in France
POSTED ON: Monday, June 7, 2021 2:13 PM by Midshipman 2/C Benoit Gorgemans
From January to May of 2021, Midshipman 2nd Class (junior) Benoit Gorgemans of Boulder, Colo., had the opportunity to study abroad at the Ecole Navale (French Naval Academy) in the French region, Brittany, which encompassing western France. For four months, he was completely immersed in the lifestyle and unique traditions of the Marine Nationale (French Navy) and France. As the only international semester exchange student at the Ecole Navale for the Spring 2021 semester, he took on the difficult but rewarding task of joining the Ecole Navale’s 2019 class, using his fluency in French, cultural curiosity, and social initiative to tackle the challenge of integrating a completely foreign military academy environment. Gorgemans’ experience in France helped shape his character and provided him with countless opportunities to learn and grow from both his French aspirant counterparts and the Ecole Navale’s academic, military and physical development program.
Gorgemans was instantly sprung into the busy lifestyle of a foreign military academy upon his arrival to France in January, simultaneously juggling academics, sports, and military field exercises while adjusting to the new environment and working to make new friendships. The sports at the Ecole Navale were rigorous, lasting for several hours each session three times a week, beginning with intramural-style sport options for the first two months until March and finishing with a demanding obstacle course/martial arts instruction circuit for the final two months. Furthermore, Gorgemans was able to experience in-depth and applicable military field training at the Ecole Navale, participating in three major field exercises covering infantry tactics/perimeter security, actual ship-boarding operations, and instruction on martial arts tactics. For two weeks in the May at the end of his time at the Ecole Navale, Gorgemans also participated in the Corvette des Gants Blancs (White Glove Training Cruise), the last and most advanced of four intense two-week training cruises that aspirants complete, where he learned how to drive and navigate a French Navy warship while enjoying port stops in Brest and Les Sables d’Olonne.
One incredibly difficult, although rewarding experience he was able to participate in this semester was the Lorient Commando training. Lasting a week during the end of January at the Commandos Marine (French Navy Commandos) base at Lorient, in southern Brittany, and intended to replicate the special forces’ selection pipeline, this training was widely regarded by the students at the Ecole Navale as one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in their midshipman careers. For a week, he and his French classmates slept a total of five hours and endured “surf torture” in the freezing rivers surrounding the base, plenty of rolling around in cold mud, difficult obstacle courses, twenty-mile ruck marches that stretched into the early hours of the morning, and cold, rainy temperatures. Despite all of these difficult factors, he also had the chance to experience some of the more interesting and high-speed parts of the Commando lifestyle—exploring the beautiful French countryside through the long ruck marches, testing his physical limits with two miles of fin swimming in the chilly River Blavet adjacent to the base, and finally, jumping into the legendary Cuve at the end of the week. Legendary among Commando lore, the Cuve is a large pit of forty-degree water that students had to jump fifteen feet into (wearing full camouflage uniform and boots) and swim across—a literally breathtaking experience.
Despite the rigors of the French military experience, Gorgemans had ample time to enjoy France and the nation’s storied culture. He spent many evenings enjoying French culinary specialties at classmates’ off-campus houses, had many opportunities to participate in intercultural discussions and exchanges with his French counterparts, and although a national lockdown that took place in France from late March to early May complicated daily life, he had the chance to visit several towns and cities in Brittany and northern France on weekends. One highlight of his experience was spending a weekend with at a classmate’s family vacation home in Biarritz, located in the French Basque Country.
Gorgemans’ semester at the Ecole Navale, especially as the only semester exchange student, allowed him to learn valuable skills in adaptability, self-advocacy and mental toughness, and gave him no other option but to make friends and lead from the front on his own in a completely foreign environment—valuable skills and lessons that will serve him well in his future endeavors as a junior officer. Aspects like the Commando training week, demanding physical fitness sessions, French cuisine, and exploring parts of Brittany and France by the side of classmates brought him closer to his French counterparts, and made for an unforgettable and valuable semester that he will cherish and remember important life lessons from.