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In California, college athlete Andy Sheaffer is pampered by his parents, especially his mother Madeline. Lacking ambition, he shows barely a passing interest in his studies and brags to friends that he stays in school only to avoid the draft. His attitude is in direct contrast to that of his hard-working girl friend, Susan Daniels, who is working her way through college. After Andy causes her to miss a class when he wrecks her car in an accident, Susan wonders if he will ever be mature enough to get married, as they plan, and returns his fraternity pin. Troubled by their breakup, Andy flunks one of his final examinations and loses his Army deferred status. Soon after, he is drafted. While settling into his barracks at Fort Ord, he pointedly refuses to conform to regulations, talks back to his superiors and maintains a constant attitude of sulky rebellion. Capt. Genaro and Sgts. Clyde and Hanna, his superior officers who embrace the ideals of the "new" Army, are strict and gruffly addresses the recruits, believing that discipline instills responsibility. Recognizing Andy's problem as "acute motheritis," Genaro has faith that the Army will help him grow up. However, Andy continues to behave disrespectfully and is lax in his duties. With the help of fellow recruit Maguire, Andy searches through little-known Army regulations in order to catch Clyde in violation and embarrass him in front of the men. Andy also fails to lock the rifle rack before inspection, which results in the entire barracks being demerited. Despite his bad attitude, Andy surprises everyone when he kicks a live grenade into a pit, thus saving the life of Maguire, who fumbled it during grenade practice. Although the other men praise Andy for his courage and quick thinking, he sullenly rejects all friendly overtures, saying he was thinking only of himself. Later, when trophies are given to the top riflemen in the unit, Andy receives first prize, but no one claps for him. During a special inspection for visiting VIPs, the rifle rack is again found unlocked and afterward the men in his barracks gang up on Andy. Hanson, a divorced, World War II veteran who rejoined the Army out of loneliness, breaks up the resulting fight. Sentenced to K.P. duty, Andy is given the odious task of cleaning out the kitchen's grease trap, when Madeline decides to visit the base. Her bossy, difficult behavior causes a backup at the entrance to the camp. To avoid a scene in front of politicians and other non-military visitors, a general orders the guard to escort Madeline. When the guard and Madeline find Andy doing menial labor, she makes a fuss and complains to Congressman Hardison, who is being given a tour high-ranking officers. Fearing bad publicity, superior officers order Genaro to give Andy a weekend pass to get him out of the way until the visitors are gone. Embarrassed by the special treatment given him, Andy refuses to go home with Madeline for his furlough. Instead, he convinces Susan to meet him at the beach, ignoring her concerns that she has final examinations on Monday. There she stops him from kissing her and accuses him of wanting her without accepting responsibility for their relationship. When he admits that he does not understand her, she suggests that he must first understand himself. Later, during war maneuvers, Andy is assigned to stand guard in a tower, where he is to survey a dangerous target practice area that civilians sometimes mistake for a peaceful and secluded picnic area. Troubled by his quarrel with Susan, he fails to see two boys and a dog enter the field, just as heavy artillery is fired. Although the boys are unharmed, Genaro, feeling unable to "rehabilitate" Andy, offers him a dishonorable discharge. Despite warnings that his career opportunities will be ruined, the delighted Andy agrees to it. When Clyde later suggests that he reconsider, for the sake of his future, Andy dismisses him. Angry, Clyde offers to meet him privately to settle their differences with a fistfight and then easily beats the undisciplined Andy with a few punches. Later, finding Andy alone in the barracks, Hanson tells him about his failed marriage and recovery from alcoholism, and suggests that Andy stop being a loner. Meanwhile, high-ranking Army officials at the Pentagon, who are planning a major "exercise," choose Andy's regiment as the first outfit in basic training to participate in a full-scale Army-wide maneuver. In a last attempt to teach Andy responsibility, Genaro, Clyde and Hanna risk assigning him to lead a squad. Andy is ordered to have his squad choose sites for command and observation posts and then lay wires for communications. After choosing a command post site, Andy sends four of his men to the observation post on the other side of a valley. Because live shells will be dropped in the valley, Andy orders the men to walk around that area to get to the post. However, Preston, an uncooperative and belligerent private, disobeys and leads the men through the target area. When shells start dropping, the panicked men take cover in an old tank, unaware that it is the bombs' target. Andy realizes his men are in peril and runs through the dangerous area to order them out of the tank, which a bomb hits seconds after the men clear it. Realizing that Andy saved their lives, a contrite Preston thanks him. Months later, the next influx of recruits coincides with Fort Ord's open house day, which the Sheaffers and Susan attend. In the barracks, as Clyde looks on with amusement, Andy, now a corporal, addresses the new men with the same gruff manner used by his mentor. Watching her son shout orders during a parade, Madeline says proudly, "I knew the Army would just love Andy!"