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Graduating into the Military

Area graduates who are entering the military take time to consider their decision

For two area graduates, a career in the military will be a chance to make dreams come true and to reach opportunities not possible otherwise.

For Andrew Pham, a senior at Hayfield Secondary, achievement in the school's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program has earned him a four-year scholarship to New York University. For Mark Puffenbarger, a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary, enrollment in the Air Force Academy will mean following in the footsteps of his father, and possibly reaching the dream of becoming an astronaut.

Pham’s decision to continue with the ROTC program at NYU, and serve at least six years in the military after college, has also meant some anxious moments from Pham's mother, who defected from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, and eventually to America, during the war in the 1970s.

"She's proud, but she's very nervous," said Pham, who is the cadet battalion commander at Hayfield, the highest rank a student can hold in JROTC. "She's kind of worried about the military thing, because she's seen it at home, what's happened. I understand that, but it's the best way for me to get an education. It's probably the only reason I can go to NYU."

Pham plans to study East Asian studies and languages in college, and although the ROTC program only requires four years of active duty following college, he hopes to make a career out of the military.

Lt. Col. Joe Spicer, who oversees the JROTC program at Hayfield, said Pham has been a model cadet for the four years he has been involved in JROTC at Hayfield.

"He's been one of our stars through the years. He's done just about everything a cadet can do in our program," said Spicer.

PARTICIPATING IN ROTC in college was not a decision Pham came to quickly. As a member of a Buddhist family, and a family with a first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war, Pham said he has gone from an outlook of "This is cool, I'm going to wear camouflage and run around in the mud" to a deeper understanding of just what he will be getting into.

"War is a very terrible thing, and I feel like every good citizen needs to in some way understand it," said Pham. "If we don't understand how terrible war can be, then there's no chance we can ever stop it."

Pham also said he feels a debt of gratitude to the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

"I read about the American casualties, almost 60,000 American soldiers died, and I thought, 'Well, the only reason I'm alive is because of all these guys, these scared young American boys.' I thought I have to do something about this. That in itself is also very Vietnamese, but I feel very strongly about doing that," he said.

The JROTC program is a part of seven Fairfax County high schools, and according to Spicer, civics, not military training, is at the heart of the program.

"The mission is to motivate young people to be better citizens," he said. About 130 students participated in the program at Hayfield. Of the 22 graduating seniors, four will enter the military in some fashion. Three, like Pham, are receiving ROTC scholarships to college, and one other is enlisting after graduation. That number, said Spicer, is down from years when 50 percent of grads would pursue a military career, but he said JROTC pays dividends regardless of whether students enter the military or not.

"We do not push military enlistment, we just offer it as an option," he said. "Someone who's thinking about going into the military, Junior ROTC would provide them with some basic skills."

Meanwhile, Puffenbarger will set off in pursuit of his own dreams this fall when he enrolls at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. He will be following in the footsteps of his father John Puffenbarger, who graduated the Academy in 1978, before a 22-year career in the Air Force. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2000, but not without leaving his mark on his son.

"I definitely looked up to him. He did lots of stuff that interested me," said Mark Puffenbarger, who began the enrollment process for the Academy during his junior year, while his father tried to stay out of the way.

"He’s always told me it has to be your choice. I don’t want you to go to the Air Force Academy for me," said Mark.

Nonetheless, watching his dad fly planes as a part of Operation Desert Storm sealed Mark’s decision, and he received the necessary recommendation from U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11) for application. He found out in March that he had been accepted, meaning he would be attending his first choice of schools.

Puffenbarger said he is prepared for whatever military involvement comes his way following graduation from the Academy.

"I don’t know where the U.S. will be down the road in current conflicts we’re involved in, or if new things will spring up, so that’s kind of hard to tell. I’m definitely eager to do anything that we’re involved in," said Puffenbarger, adding that he receives a mix of responses when he tells people he will be entering the military after graduation.

"There are those people who say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ There are also those who say, ‘Wow that’s really cool, you’re going to get to do some awesome stuff,’" he said. "Most people think it’s a great thing to do, maybe not for them, but a great thing to do."