For most people, college is the best four years of their lives.
It’s training for the real world. A chance to be away from home for the first time, to find oneself and, of course, attain a higher level of education.
For six Davis High School graduates, college life included training of another kind at the U.S. Air Force and Military academies.
Four years ago Max Reilly, Tyler Finley and Chris Hu headed off on a shortened summer break to Colorado Springs, Colo., to attend the Air Force Academy. They returned to Davis this summer as second lieutenants in the U.S Air Force and have been assigned at least five years of active duty each.
William Anderson, Jae-Doo Son and Katy Stark, also former Blue Devils, graduated this summer from the U.S Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
It’s rare to see more than one student from a graduating class accepted to West Point, let alone three. The same can be said of the Air Force Academy, whose 2017 class profile boasted a 12 percent acceptance rate. The Military Academy accepted only 1,100 of its 15,000 applicants.
One of the more difficult aspects of the application process is earning a nomination from either their congressional representative or one of their two U.S. senators.
Each of the locals received nominations from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, while Katy Stark also received a nomination from Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Due to the fact that Hu’s father served 30 years as a dentist in the Air Force, he was able to get a second nomination from President Barack Obama although he admits he was not able to meet the president.
Then the real fun begins.
“I like to tell people that lots of kids want to be in the Army when they grow up; I just never grew out of that phase,” Anderson said.
That is exactly the mind-set that plebes, or freshmen, need to have during the most difficult orientation of any college in America, basic training.
“It’s really an introduction to military life,” Finley said. “(The Air Force) teaches you how to march. Some people don’t have the respect structure needed so they make sure and teach you that. We also have some field training like running around with rifles but I’m sure West Point goes into that a little more than we do.”
“The first day hits you like a rock,” Son said. “Everyone gets their heads shaved, they teach you basic military movements. At the end of the day, there’s a parade in front of all the parents to kind of say (we’re) walking in as regular civilians and now (we’re) walking out as new cadets. I just remember standing there thinking, what is going on?”
There were more challenges to face. No cell phones, no email, no backpacks and being restricted to using only your left hand are all commonplace for plebes.
Furthermore, at West Point, no food packages or visitors are allowed, and only three phone calls allotted during cadet basic training.
“You start from the bottom and make your way up, that’s for sure,” Stark said, “but then you really start to get used to it and a lot of the friends you make really help with that.”
All six DHS graduates have something else in common — their love of sports. Fittingly, athletics is a mandatory part of attending service academies, and if you don’t play an NCAA sport, you’re required to play intramurals.
Reilly, a former high school All-American water polo player, continued his playing career at Air Force, having to balance a six day-a-week practice schedule and tournaments every other weekend in California with his school work.
Son, a former Davis varsity basketball player, took up boxing. “I loved it; it was really different for me having played basketball and team sports all my life,” he said.
Others, such as Stark and Hu, left their old sports behind while taking up new ones. Because West Point did not have a women’s water polo team, Stark played handball, which she described as “an easy transition; it’s like water polo on a court.”
Hu also played handball for his first two years in lieu of continuing on with lacrosse. Along with friendly competition, he was able to find solace in his violin, as he was a member of the DHS Orchestra.
Anderson, on the other hand, continued on with most of his Blue Devil varsity sports, including wrestling, rugby, football and orienteering, which requires a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain.
Finley, a teammate of Reilly’s on the high school team, practiced with the Air Force’s club water polo team for a stint but learned that they forbid skiing or skydiving, so he left the water for the slopes and skies.
Sports serve as a reprieve for students of service academies, who face rigid daily schedules that could include a survival swimming class followed by introduction to calculus.
One of the main reasons Air Force and West Point have such uniform schedules is to prepare their future officers to manage their time.
Along with being thrust into stressful situations, students are taught leadership while concurrently trying to figure out who they really are.
“When you’re 20, no one knows who they really are,” Reilly said. “They say you change 10 times when you’re in your 20s.”
Each student has his or her own reason for sacrificing the freedom of a typical civilian college.
Some — like Reilly, Finley and Anderson — have always felt a yearning to join a higher cause. Others, like Hu, have a family legacy to uphold and have been “indoctrinated” into the military culture since birth.
Then there’s Stark, believed to be only the second woman from DHS appointed to West Point since the academy began admitting females in 1976. The number of female cadets has steadily increased during her four years at the U.S Military Academy. Stark’s brother, Jeffery, is a junior at DHS who just interviewed with the U.S. Naval Academy.
And then there’s Son.
“Coming from an immigrant family, I’ve always been called an Asian-American, not just an American,” said Son, whose family moved from South Korea. “That’s always something that’s bugged me where if someone asked me, ‘What have you done for this country?’ I don’t know what I’d say. But now maybe through my service I can say, ‘I’m just as American as you.’ ”
In fact, Son was so set on attending West Point that after receiving his letter of acceptance, he never checked his other applications. “Maybe it was the heat of the moment, maybe it was me feeling all the things I just told you and so I signed it and sent it back. I never wanted to look back and say, I could have gone here or there.”
Now that the drills have been executed, the tests taken and their oaths sworn, it is time for the six new military officers to begin their active duty.
Anderson will be heading off to Fort Richardson just outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and will be in charge of a 25- to 40-person unit doing construction, demolition or other engineering tasks.
Finley has been assigned to Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, the largest in the country. He will attend pilot training, which is a 10-year commitment.
Son will be an officer in the infantry, and in a couple of weeks will be heading to Fort Benning, Ga., for Basic Officers Leaders Course.
Hu will study to be a physician’s assistant for the Air Force at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. There, they offer top-of-the-line Interservice Physician Assistant Program training. Hu will become certified after 2 1/2 years of training.
Reilly was planning to become a pilot like Finley, however, due to heart complications he lost his pilot slot and will have to re-apply in a few years. In the interim, he will work for acquisitions, essentially the business side of the Air Force, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
In 10 years Reilly sees himself working as a combat rescue officer whose duties include jumping out of planes and rescuing hostages.
Stark is headed off to Fort Huachuca in Arizona for her Basic Officers Leaders Course training, similar to Son, and will be there for 4 1/2 months.
In their comparatively elongated summer, these future military leaders are thoroughly enjoying their duty-free hiatus from their normally stressful academy lives. The comfort and support from family and friends is always relished, especially as they begin a new chapter that few have earned the honor to begin.