Some Mid-Columbia grads choosing to serve

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 27, 2012 

When C.J. Edrington told his parents he wanted join the military, he said his mother wasn't keen on the idea.

"My mom told me, 'There's no way, you have to get a college education,' " said Edrington, 18, who will graduate as salutatorian from Pasco's Chiawana High School on Saturday.

That led Edrington to apply to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He was accepted at both and decided to attend West Point. He's due on the New York campus July 2.

"It was kind of a cool choice to make," he said.

Edrington is one of a number of graduating seniors enlisting in the military or attending one of the nation's military academies.

Former service members said there was a time when going into the military immediately following high school was viewed as a decision of last resort.

However, the ability to pay for college, gain work experience and the increasing selectivity of candidates for enlisted and officer slots has made the military an increasingly honorable career choice.

"It's a good segue into the civilian world," said William Bialozor, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is the instructor for the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Walla Walla High School.

About 35 future soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have been invited to a Future Soldiers Banquet on May 30, organized by the Washington State Army Advisory Board and Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition. The young adults were referred to the event by their recruiters, said organizer and retired sailor Bob Quay.

"We're just letting them know we appreciate their service," he said.

Joel Oberdorfer, valedictorian at Phoenix High School in Kennewick, said he's known he wanted to go into the military since he was 4 years old. He's enlisted in the Air Force and will report for duty at the end of June before going on to train as a mechanic.

"I always knew I wanted to do something more than college," the 18-year-old said.

Then there are graduates such as Edrington, who was accepted into one of the country's five military academies.

Tasha Talbot, valedictorian at Liberty Christian School in Richland, began considering a military academy after running into a West Point recruiter at a college fair. She said as she continued investigating them, she learned of the Navy's Marine Mammal Program, where dolphins and seals are trained for reconnaissance work.

"Dolphins are my favorite animal," she said. "I've always wanted to be a dolphin trainer."

An advantage of the academies is students can earn a degree paid for by the federal government and graduate as commissioned officers. But admission standards are stiff, with all but one of the academies requiring a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress, in addition to strong academic and athletic accomplishments.

People enlisting in the military, such as Oberdorfer, also can get help with their education. There's the G.I. Bill, which helps pay college costs after military service. And many military bases have community colleges or partnerships with neighboring universities.

Bialozor and Quay pointed out that no branch of the military is accepting anyone with anything less than a traditional high school diploma, and any number of past lapses of judgment can disqualify potential recruits, including excess traffic tickets.

That's a far cry from what veterans said they experienced when they joined the military.

"When I was in basic training, we had two kids in my platoon who the judge told, 'You either join the military or you go to jail.' We don't get those kids anymore," Bialozor said.

Despite the increasing value of a military career or education, not everyone who goes for it is strongly supported, at least not initially.

Talbot said her parents, especially her mother, were concerned for her safety, having heard reports of sexual assaults. Her father wanted her to attend Whitworth University in Seattle, as her two older siblings have.

"He told me I couldn't go into the Naval Academy until I applied to Whitworth," she said. "My gift to him was my Whitworth acceptance letter on his pillow."

While his parents warmed to the idea, Edrington said some of his friends' parents have said he's limiting himself by attending West Point and joining the military. However, he did have some support from his grandfather, a 33-year veteran of the Air Force.

"When I first told my grandfather, he didn't even say, 'That's great,' he just said 'What? Why aren't you applying to the Air Force Academy?' " Edrington said, laughing.

A military career doesn't come without risks. Quay said by signing up, someone is "signing a blank check you may have to cash" if the nation goes to war.

Talbot said that for her even to get close to working with marine mammals in the Navy likely would take more than a decade. In that time, she may decide to pursue something else. But she's still confident in her choice.

"The motto of the Navy is 'fulfill your destiny,' " she said.

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