Dan Cosentino was in a freshman math class at Georgetown Preparatory School during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. His father, an Army officer and former United States Military Academy instructor, was in the Pentagon.
“My dad, actually he came back from a tour in Korea and he just moved into the Pentagon two weeks before that,” Cosentino said. “His office was one floor above where the plane hit.”
It was a few hours before Cosentino found out his father was safe. And it was only a matter of months before he made up his mind to follow his father into military service. He attended a summer program at the Military Academy, also known as West Point, the summer after his sophomore year and secured a presidential nomination to the school the following summer.
Cosentino is one of 17 service academy appointees from Montgomery County this year. U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) hosted a reception at his House office building June 14 for the new cadets, who will graduate the academies in 2009, as well as the 2005 academy graduates, who talked about their experiences for the new cadets and their families.
For the appointees, the reception was the end of a long road — and the beginning of another one.
The new cadets have spent months juggling not only SATs, transcripts and the other elements of college applications, but also Congressional and Senatorial nominations and medical tests. They’ll have no “senior summers” either — the appointees will be shipping out next week for plebe summers marked primarily, they say, by lots and lots of running.
At the end of four years at the academies, they will face a minimum five-year commitment to serve in the military — a commitment they have made with the country at war.
The cadets cite myriad reasons for their decisions to attend the academies. Some, like Cosentino, have military backgrounds in their families. Others don’t. Some cite the influence of 9/11, but nearly four years later the significance of the attacks is not as strong for the academies’ 2009 classes as it was for cadets entering in the first two years after the attacks.
The only common thread is a desire to serve.
ALL THREE of the major service academies — the United States Military Academy, the United States Air Force Academy, and the United States Naval Academy — have seen a decline in applications this year.
West Point received 10,774 applications, down from 11,881 last year — a decrease of about 9 percent, seeking admission to an incoming class of 1,200.
The drop in applications in Annapolis and Colorado Springs were somewhat bigger. Naval Academy applications were down 20 percent from a year ago and the Air Force Academy saw a 23 percent drop
“We’re a little down from the numbers from last year … but we still have very qualified applicant pool,” said Frank DeMaro, a West Point spokesman. “We’re really back to the same numbers we were at pre-9/11."
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, all of the academies saw a spike in applications. DeMaro said that it's reasonable to speculate that the attacks caused a surge in patriotic sentiment, but added, "There's really no way to quantify it," noting that the spike might also have had to do with West Point's bicentennial celebration, which drew media attention.
With a class of 1,200 cadets drawn from almost 11,000, the academy remains highly competitive with a highly-qualified applicant pool, DeMaro said.
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8) agreed.
“I think we’ve got a great group of kids,” he said. “It’s a rigorous process to begin with, and you have to make a decision before you go into this process that you want to devote a good part of your life to the service academies.”
“The international environment is going to be a factor these young people consider when they make their application,” Van Hollen said about the significance of the U.S. presence in Iraq. “These are young people who’ve decided that despite the obvious risks that are around today and the real possibility that they might be overseas in combat situations … nevertheless to go through the process and participate.”
The quality of people applying is still very high, he said.
WHILE THE SERVICE academies have seen a dip in applications, non-academy military recruiting has been difficult.
Officials announced June 8 that the army had missed recruitment goals for the fourth consecutive month in May, despite having reduced the target for the month.
“Clearly we know from recent reports that there are strains on the system,” Van Hollen said. “I think that the military is going to have to work hard to make sure they inspire people … and that they do it in a way that meets the highest standards of recruitment.”
But, he said, “I think while the system is showing its strains, at least at the academy level, you’re still seeing lots of applications.”
And despite the emphasis placed on the effect of 9/11, DeMaro said that cadets' motivations for coming to West Point have remained relatively constant over the years: "The desire to serve is the main reason folks come here."
Cosentino said that 9/11 wasn’t the only factor in his decision, “but it definitely helped.” He grew up living on West Point’s campus when his father was a professor and said that he always admired the cadets and felt comfortable in military settings.
That doesn’t make him immune from a sense of reservation, especially considering the war in Iraq.
“I do have mixed feelings. I’m not sure if we should be going to Iraq, but I don’t feel like I know everything,” Cosentino said. “Obviously I’m a little scared and apprehensive at the idea that I could be going to war, but I also kind of feel like I should. … I’m very excited. I’ll be happy to serve my country.”
RYAN WEILGUS graduated from Winston Churchill High School this month and will attend the Naval Academy.
“If I hadn’t gone into the service academy … I was considering serving anyway. Whether I’d just go to the academy or do ROTC or just enlist, I don’t know. I just felt like that was my duty I guess,” Weilgus said.
The Weilgus family used to live in northern New Jersey and moved to the Washington area in August, 2001. They had friends in the twin towers on 9/11.
“When he first told us … he was considering the academies, I honestly was shocked,” said Maureen Weilgus, Ryan Weilgus’ mother. “He started telling me about how post-9/11 he felt this patriotic surge and it was just something he really wanted to do. … Once I got over the shock of all that, I felt really proud.”
When Ryan Weilgus told her he was considering ROTC if he didn’t get into an academy, she knew he was serious, Maureen Weilgus said.
And when Ryan Weilgus saw how rigorous the academy application process is, he became more and more committed to getting in. He was accepted to both West Point and the Naval Academy. He said he chose the Naval Academy because partly because it’s closer but mostly because it felt right when he visited. He will play golf for the Midshipmen next year.
Standing in the Longworth House Office Building following a reception for new appointees hosted by Van Hollen, Ryan Weilgus reflected, “I definitely didn’t go in looking to just go in, get my education, get my diploma, serve, do the time and then get out and start a real job. That wasn’t my mentality. It was totally just to lead my peers, lead my cohort, my generation.”
STEPHANIE KALNOSKE is focused on the academic aspects of the Naval Academy. The Walt Whitman High School graduate said she plans to study engineering, and she knew that Annapolis is one of the best places in the world to do it.
"I wanted to go into engineering, and the academy is a wonderful place to learn engineering, especially in the field of weapons and systems which I wanted to major in," Kalnoske said.
Kalnoske went through the academy application process while spending a year at boarding school in New England, completing her review board interviews by cell phone, with limited reception. When she found out she had been accepted, her first thoughts turned not to the possibility of going into combat, but to the realities of basic training."
"I feel it’s a noble cause, that we’re doing the right thing in Iraq," Kalnoske said. "My worst reservation is the plebe summer right now. The plebe summer is the worst part of it You do a lot of running. A lot of running. Most of what you do is running."
Cosentino had similar concerns.
“Lack of sleep is something I’m going to have trouble getting used to,” he said.
Another concern: “I’m worried about getting fed enough. I like to eat a lot of food.”
Maureen Weilgus’s worries run deeper.
“I obviously as a mother, I have anxiety, fear for him. Knowing that with the country being in a state of war that he probably at some point will be deployed …. In that respect I have fear and anxiety,” she said. “But after going through this process and watching and seeing how much he wants this and how proud he is, I really don’t have any apprehension. I know he’s going to be terrific.”