Like most college-bound high school seniors Emily Bobenrieth faces a mixture of emotions as the last few weeks of her high school experience wind down.
“She’s nervous and scared just like any other kid,” said Maureen Bobenrieth, Emily’s mother. “She’s leaving everything she’s ever known and moving away from her best friends.”
In the next few weeks Emily Bobenrieth will take her final exams, go to her senior prom, attend graduation parties, and then will go with some of her friends to the beach.
That’s where the similarities between Emily Bobenrieth, a Winston Churchill High School senior, and most other rising college freshmen will end. On July 2 Bobenrieth will begin six weeks of basic training at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Bobenrieth is one of several students from local high schools that will attend service academies next year, with boot camp-style training beginning this summer. It is a decision that is far different from those that their friends have made, and often even from what their parents want, but those that have made it say that it is the result of a deep conviction to serve their country and to make the most of their lives.
For Bobenrieth, the decision to attend one of the country’s service academies is one that was influenced by her father, Manny, who is a sergeant major in the army and plays the accordion in the U.S. Army Band.
“He definitely opened my eyes to it … but it’s not something I was pressured into,” Bobenrieth said. West Point was one of eight schools that Bobenrieth applied to, but she didn’t make her decision until a four-day trip to the campus this spring.
“I visited and I stayed with a plebe and I went to classes and I just, I loved it,” Bobenrieth said. “My dad picked me up on Sunday and I was like, ‘Dad, this is it, this is where I want to be.’” Bobenrieth said she was surprised to find that the students there were normal people, not the geniuses and stereotypical gung-ho soldier-types that she had expected. The unity among the students sealed it for her.
“Everyone was there for everyone else,” Bobenrieth said. “They’re really normal, average individuals, you know, nobody’s having an easy time there but everybody’s making it through.”
THE PROCESS of applying to any of the service academies is a rigorous one designed to weed out those who are not committed, said Joan Kleinman, District Director for U.S. Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
In order for a student to be considered for admission they must be recommended by a U.S. Senator or Congressman, or their parents must be active-duty military. Interested students must submit application forms that include multiple essays to their congressmen and then undergo an interview before a four-person panel.
The students face a battery of questions intended to reveal their dedication levels. Questions range from what books the applicants have read recently, to what they would do if they were given orders that they thought to be unethical.
“The kids who apply, the number one thing is they have an interest in serving their country in this way,” Kleinman said.
On top of the recommendations, students must also submit applications to the academies, which Bobenrieth described as more rigorous than most of the other applications they had submitted to regular four-year colleges and universities.
The students also had to be examined by doctors from the respective academies to ensure that they met the physical health requirements of the military. Candidates with chronic injuries or allergies are likely to be dismissed. Bobenrieth said that she knew a girl who had childhood asthma, overcame it to go on to play for the U.S. national soccer team, and was turned down by one of the service academies because they were concerned about her asthma.
“It’s not a small thing, it’s a huge, huge part of the process,” Manny Bobenrieth said of the physical examinations.
With the medical examination, the interviews, the essays and the applications over with, Bobenrieth was less than amused with a friend of hers who thought that admission to service academies was almost automatic.
“Someone asked if I even had to apply to get in,” Bobenrieth said. “I almost died.”
IAN ALEXANDER is a Churchill senior and the captain of the Bulldog swim team. This fall he will head to the Citadel on a full ROTC scholarship from the Navy. Though most students at the Citadel are not bound to a military obligation upon graduation, the terms of Alexander’s scholarship dictate that he will spend four years in the Navy, which is fine with him because that’s where he wants to spend his career.
His parents weren’t thrilled with his decision to pursue a career in the military, and his friends are worried.
“My parents weren’t too keen on it,” Alexander said. “My mom was a major hippie back in the day, but it’s my decision and they respect that. [My friends are] nervous for me, they want me to be careful with my life.”
“A lot of [my friends] are kind of amazed that there is someone that wants to go into the military,” said Sarah Grant, a senior at Walt Whitman High School. Grant will head to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis this summer. It is the first step in realizing her dream of being in the Navy, a dream that she has had longer than she can remember.
“I’m not actually sure [what drove my interest], it’s something I’ve always been interested in and talked about,” said Grant.
Like Bobenrieth, Grant’s visit to Annapolis finalized her decision. Last summer she spent a week at the Naval Academy living like a midshipman, taking classes and “basically testing out academy life for a week,” Grant said. “I loved it; that was definitely one of the things that cemented my decision for me.”
BY THE TIME Bobenrieth, Alexander and Grant graduate from their respective schools, they will be commissioned officers in their respective military branches, bound to honor time commitments to the military.
They each said that they are fully aware of the fact that they could one day be putting their lives on the line, and that they weighed the decision carefully. For Bobenrieth and Grant, though women are not permitted to serve in the battlefield, they are not exempt from danger. The vast majority of casualties in the Iraq war have been men, but 81 women have been killed, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
“If need be I’m willing to be in harm’s way,” Grant said. “It’s a risk that I’ve accepted and am willing to take because [serving] the country is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s scary and something you try not to think about but you kind of have to accept the risk.
“I’m ready if my country calls on me — I’m not for the Iraq war, I’m not against it. I’m a real patriotic person and I want to serve my country. If it’s my time to go over there, then so be it.”
Bobenrieth’s parents said that their feelings were a mixture of fear and of pride.
“I’m scared for her. … I hope the war’s over by the time she graduates, but there will always be something going on,” Maureen Bobenrieth said.
“Do I worry about her? Of course I worry about her,” said Manny Bobenrieth. “I hope that it’ll all be done [when she graduates], and I don’t ever want to see her get hur. t… [But] I think it’s a great opportunity for her.”
MORE FRIGHTENING to Alexander than the possibility of being injured while serving in a war is the thought of leading a quiet and boring life. The military is his way out of that.
“I was always afraid of having a desk job, just sitting around with a do-nothing job, two kids and a house, and a boring life. … I want to have an adventure, you know?”
The opportunity to travel the world with all expenses paid was part of the appeal to Bobenrieth, as was the top-flight education and hands-on experience that she’ll get during her service.
“It’s a great thing, there are so [many] opportunities and it’s a stable job,” Bobenrieth said. “Especially for me, because I will be moving around so many different places and [having] experiences you can’t get anywhere else.”
“I [will] be getting a top-notch engineering education,” said Grant, who said that she hopes to be a nuclear engineer on an aircraft carrier. “If stayed in the Navy [past the mandatory time commitment] I could continue working on all the different systems they have, and if I ever left the Navy I would have terrific experience — I’d be set up.”
While their friends are going to parties and sleeping in on weekends the next four years, Alexander, Grant and Bobenrieth will be marching in formation and making curfew.
“For me it’s not [a big deal]. I have fun with my friends, but I’ve never really been one [to party], so it’s not like I’m missing anything,” Bobenrieth said.
“A lot of the social activities that are missing at the academy I’m not that worried about,” Grant said. “All the benefits there outweighed what I’m missing.”
For Alexander, the decision boiled down to having the opportunity of a lifetime, or the stereotypical college experience.
THE COMING WEEKS bring a whirlwind of AP exams, final exams, locker cleanouts, tearful goodbyes, and graduation festivities for high school seniors.
Alexander will work as an assistant manager at the Regency Estates swim club until he leaves for the Citadel in July. He said he will spend his free time trying to relax and have as much fun as possible while he can.
“Right now I’m just focusing on enjoying the things I won’t be able to do at the Citadel,” said Alexander.
Once school is out Grant is going to visit some family in Colorado for a few days, then will try to cram in as much time with her friends as she can. Meanwhile, Bobenrieth will see friends and spend some time at the beach.
For all three, time is winding down on life as they have known it.
“I’m kind of nervous,” Bobenrieth said. “But I know it’ll be worth it.”