Homeschooled Texas teen headed to Air Force Academy
AUSTIN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — A Texas 18-year-old will soon join the ranks of the select few accepted into a U.S. military academy with plans to serve the country.
Lake Mills will report June 24 to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., fulfilling a dream he's had since he was 12 years old.
Mills, who's been homeschooled primarily by his mother Julie Mills, said he was always drawn to the military because military values aligned with his personal values.
He had grandparents who served in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, and in September 2016 when he was 14, Mills joined the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit that serves as the official auxiliary of the Air Force.
During his first flight with CAP, Mills recalls soaring high above his house in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk plane and being hooked on the experience.
"It's basically a program to spark interest in aviation, cybersecurity and build leaders for youth," Mills said of CAP. "Their program really sparked interest for me in aviation and just the military."
Mills' acceptance into the Air Force Academy wasn't just the completion of a tedious, nearly two-year application process that involved nominations, letters of recommendation, interviews, medical tests and essays to get into a school with an acceptance rate hovering around 10%, it was also a milestone moment for his family, which has chosen to homeschool all five of its children.
The family relocated from Minnesota, where Mills' and his siblings' homeschooling began, to Bastrop County, Texas, about 10 years ago.
The ability for Julie Mills and her husband Brett's children — all five of them boys — to roam around outside and participate in "free play" was something that appealed to Julie Mills, a former English teacher who tailored the homeschool curriculum to have a focus on experiential learning.
This meant countless family field trips where Mills and his brothers would visit museums and natural and historic sites such as the Great Smoky Mountains, Colonial Williamsburg and Washington.
Mills said he's enjoyed the environment created through homeschooling, where hands-on application is stressed. For example, Mills said that after learning about vectors in math he was able to apply what he learned by building an elevator with pulleys, and the brothers have also completed work with real-world electricians to aid their study of physics.
Homeschool also offered Mills a crash course in time management and flexibility, something he used once joining CAP.
In addition to homeschool work, Mills also took dual-credit classes at Austin Community College and courses at One Day Academy, an institution designed to teach higher-level courses, finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average.
This came in addition to CAP activities like serving as the cadet commander for his squadron of more than 60 cadets based at Camp Mabry and remaining on course for the General Carl A. Spaatz Award, the highest cadet honor given by CAP and presented to cadets who have "demonstrated excellence in leadership, character, fitness and aerospace education," according to the award's website.
Less than 0.5% of CAP cadets in the nation receive the Spaatz Award each year. Since the inception of the award in 1964, only 2,341 cadets have received the honor.
"I had a goal in mind. Like the Air Force Academy, that was my goal and that was my vision," Mills said of earning the Spaatz Award. "When I have something, I'm going to get it done regardless."
On top of making progress toward the Spaatz Award and spending his summers attending leadership schools and flying, Mills was also a three-sport athlete at Bastrop Tribe Consolidated, winning state championships with the six-man Tribe Consolidated football team, playing linebacker and serving as a captain.
He led Tribe with 14 tackles during last year's state title win.
Mills said another advantage of being homeschooled was that it allowed him to actively go out, be communicative and seek relationships that weren't built into a traditional school experience.
This allowed him to build bonds while volunteering at the church his family attends — Bastrop Christian Church — where Mills sang in the choir, worked as a sound technician for the choir and served as a junior deacon and as a children's ministry teacher.
A mantra that Julie has raised each of her five children with is "do it scared."
This can apply to any of the previously unknown activities and situations she and her husband encourage their children to take part in, like learning how to perform formal dances and taking part in a theater course.
"Some people stay in their comfort zones and they never go out and try new things," Mills said. "I don't think you get to expand your perspective and learning from that, and I've always been so thankful for that."
Given this moniker, Mills had a seminal experience during the 2019 summer when he studied abroad in Moldova for six weeks.
Like his older brother Hudson, Mills received a National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship to travel outside the U.S. to study a critical language in a different country.
While the U.S. State Department, which sponsors the National Security Language Initiative program, paid for Hudson to study Mandarin in China, Mills went to Moldova to study Russian.
Mills picked Russian because it was a top critical language listed by the Air Force, and the 120 hours of intensive Russian study he completed added another distinguishing aspect to his military application.
"I broadened my worldview and perspective significantly," Mills said of living with a host family in Moldova. "We'd have field trips where we would actually go use our language and it was like, if you want to eat, you have to use the language. I thought the best way to learn the language was to go live in (another) country and be surrounded by it."
Now, Mills doesn't expect to return home from the Air Force Academy until December, when he will be in the thick of his first-year general studies assignments.
"I'm so confident it's exactly where he's supposed to be, it's kind of like he was made to do that," Julie Mills said, adding that she's excited to maybe help other Central Texas parents with military academy applications for homeschool students. "It's not a surprise to me, so we're really rejoicing with him."
While Mills doesn't have to select a major until his second year in Colorado, he's eyeing military and strategic studies.
The end goal for Mills, as it has been since he was 12, is to be a pilot, hopefully flying fighter planes before eventually retiring into the commercial airline business.
Once he graduates the Air Force Academy as a second lieutenant, Mills will have a commitment of at least eight years of service, a proposition he's looking forward to.
"I guess you have some butterflies, but this is what I've wanted for many, many years," Mills explained. "I love that atmosphere of just teamwork and morale. I'm really looking forward to becoming a better leader, better communicator and working with a bunch of people accomplishing goals. I'm ecstatic to head out."
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