MacDill event looks for leaders
TAMPA -- More than most of the students milling around the hallway at the Davis Conference Center at MacDill Air Force Base, Caleb Allen knows the cost of war.
His father, retired Marine Cpl. Mike Jernigan, was blinded when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device while he was on patrol in Iraq in 2004.
But that didn't stop Allen, 16, from joining about 200 other young men and women at the annual Academy Day held Saturday at the base for those considering entering one of the five service academies.
Allen has no doubts about which academy he wants to attend.
His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were Marines.
"I want to go into the Naval Academy and become a Marine officer," said Allen, a junior at Berkeley Preparatory School. "I want to serve my country."
As Allen talks, Jernigan smiles with pride.
As a father who knows all too well the sacrifices troops make, he says his son is determined.
"It's in his soul," Jernigan said. "He will be a fourth-generation Marine."
Academy Day is a college fair for future military leaders, and competition is fierce.
"This gets people in the loop," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who convened this Academy Day — her sixth.
In addition to offering "one-stop shopping" for students and their parents to learn about entry requirements and expectations, Castor said the event offers attendees a chance to get face-time with her, her advisory team and academy representatives.
Anyone wishing to enter an academy must jump two hurdles: They have to gain admission, and they must be recommended either by their local representative or senator. There also is a vice presidential nomination open to anyone, and a presidential nomination open only to children of those who served in the military.
The application cycle usually begins in students' junior year of high school, but a candidate can express interest much earlier with academy-affiliated sports camps.
Having excellent grades isn't enough.
At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, 87 percent of the new students have earned a varsity sports letter, and among those, 75 percent were team captains, according to Capt. Charles H. Cook, the Army's military academy liaison officer for Castor's district.
Air Force Col. Ted Mathews Jr., vice wing commander of the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill, is one of Castor's advisers. Matthews said he looks for leadership qualities when assessing candidates.
"Be a leader on your sports team, be a leader on your club, or start one," he said.
Students who enter the service, either through an academy or by enlisting, face danger — something highlighted by the presence of Jernigan and his guide dog, Brittani.
"As a parent, I tend to internalize that danger more than the child," said David Henry, 52, whose son hopes to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When asked about the risk that comes with service, Tampa Jesuit High School student Michael Henry, 17, responded: "I want to fly."
For more information on applying for a service academy, go to: http://castor.house.gov/constituentservices/serviceacademynominations.htm.