- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Hurrah for the red, white and blue echoes loud and clear at South Lakes High School in Reston, where five of this year’s 330 graduates are attending three of the nation’s service academies.

That’s a record for a school that in the last 10 years has had nine seniors enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy alone.

The feat makes a person wonder if there is something in the school’s drinking water.

“They are superior young people,” says Bruce Butler, South Lakes’ proud principal, who makes a point of saying that all five are in the top 5 percent of the class.

Candidates for the academies must have a recommendation from a member of Congress — and in special cases from the executive branch — and, if accepted, are assured of receiving a free education in return for commitment of five years of service following graduation.

“I have a little experience, having had four nephews go through the Naval Academy and all played football,” Mr. Butler says. “I think there are plenty of kids [like them] who see the big picture and understand about commitment to their country. Some act on that and choose to apply for military institutions. We have other students on ROTC scholarships going to other universities.

“But I don’t think anyone going into the academies for reasons of money will last,” he adds. “Because of the challenges, physically and mentally, to be successful there you really have to want to do it.”

“Five must beat out any high school of this size, especially given the way things are in the world,” says guidance counselor Bill Campbell, who supervised two of the five students. “It’s a bit daunting for a kid to say he will face the kinds of life-threatening situations that will most likely come their way.”

Patriotism is a given for four out of the five who come from homes where at least one member and sometimes two or more have served, or currently serve, in the military.

Zachary Newcomb, 18, had the unusual distinction of being sworn into the Naval Academy as a midshipman 4th class on Wednesday, Induction Day, by his own father, a newly retired U.S. Navy commander.

“Basically, you go into a room with just your underwear,” is how young Mr. Newcomb describes the experience of I Day. “They put everything you bring — wallet, cell phone, and such — to be stashed in some bins.” In addition to taking an oath, the class of 2010 got haircuts, were issued uniforms, took medical exams, did paperwork and were taught how to salute by midshipmen 1st class, the seniors who are in charge of their summer training.

Mr. Newcomb has an older brother at the academy and another brother who is an Air Force flight avionics specialist stationed in northern Italy, but the Navy was his own idea, he insists. Having grown up overseas in a military household, spending seven years in Europe, he was eligible to apply for the limited number of presidential appointments that he says are “open for candidates from overseas when they don’t have a [fixed] state residence.”

He also insists that he “got in with my eyes open. I understand we are at war. I think it is pretty much the reason why you join.” He had been active in Scouting and heavily involved in school sports, including lacrosse, in which he was team captain.

Mr. Newcomb’s South Lakes’ classmate at the Naval Academy is Mary Magrogan, 18, who also became an official “plebe” on I Day. She had been a student leader in ROTC, an elective program, following in the footsteps of her father, a former captain in the Navy Supply Corps, now retired.

“Nobody had any influence on me as far as my wanting to [join the military],” she says. She was drawn to Annapolis at the end of sixth grade when she first visited the campus and found she “liked the organization and the structure.” Apart from that, she says, she “wants to do something for my country, and [at the same time] do something different and interesting with my life.”

Because she had been interested in the academy so early in her life, “basically everything about college centered on that. It was either the academy or the ROTC scholarship to another college.” Her strongest interests, apart from gymnastics and other extracurricular activities, are science and math, which she hopes will lead to a career in aerospace engineering and possibly to becoming a pilot.

Susan Finch, 17, who pursued soccer, indoor track and diving in high school, is going to the Air Force Academy in Colorado like her father before her. She hopes to be a fighter pilot. What convinced her was the positive experience she had on a recruiting trip — she was recruited as a soccer player, she says — when she got to follow a cadet around to classes.

“I’m very proud of our country and proud to be American and I want to give back whatever I can,” she says. Of the real possibility she might serve on active duty in a war zone, she notes simply, “I will take it as it comes.”

Another Air Force cadet from the class is 18-year-old Jennifer Nolta — another potential pilot.

“I saw a TV special on the B-2 bomber and thought it was really cool,” she says.

Both her parents are retired Air Force veterans, and a brother is at the academy now. She grew up abroad, moving back and forth between Europe and the United States.

“Military life is something I’m used to. It just makes sense,” she says. “You get benefits and you give back.”

The fifth student is Dan Cunningham, also 18, who, having been recruited as a football player, is scheduled to report July 13 at West Point’s prep academy at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Upon completion of the yearlong program, he will go on to Army’s academy by the Hudson River in New York state.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what West Point was a year ago. It was all about football for me,” he says. “They have a great tradition and they wanted me to come. Before that I just wanted to go study accounting.”

He changed his mind when he spent a day at West Point.

“I saw the great Army football history, and the prestige and camaraderie and brotherhood — all the stuff that comes with it. That locked me in.”

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