NICEVILLE — More than two dozen area high school students got one step closer Tuesday to their dreams of serving their country after earning nominations to the nation’s military service academies. In returning for promising some years of military service following their graduation, they each will recieve a college education valued at more than half-a-million dollars.
“I hope to become the best pilot in the Air Force,” an excited Zach Brown said after learning he had been nominated to the Air Force Academy.
Zach’s nomination made a bit of local history, as he became the first student ever from Okaloosa County’s Baker High School to earn a nomination to a service academy.
The students, from a host of high schools, were nominated by Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida’s Republican 1st District congressman. Gaetz’s nominations were based in part on interviews with the students conducted by a panel of service academy alumni and former and current military personnel. Also factored into the nominations were the students’ academic records and their demonstration of citizenship and leadership qualities, Gaetz said.
Gaetz spent the morning driving across his district, from Gulf Breeze to Navarre to Niceville, to announce the nominations in person. At Niceville High, hundreds of students, parents and relatives gathered in the auditorium as the names of nominees from a number of schools were called and each donned a baseball cap indicating which academy they hoped to attend.
“This is an incredibly special day,” Gaetz, a 2000 graduate of Niceville, told the crowd that jammed the auditorium.
“It highlights all that you’ve done to better yourselves,” he told the nominees.
Tuesday’s nominations put the students in line for the individual academies’ selection process. Not all the students nominated will earn an academy appointment, but not making the cut shouldn’t hinder the exceptional young people at all, according to Gaetz.
“They’re going to be successes no matter what they do,” Gaetz said.
Jillian Hobbs, a home-schooled student who is jointly enrolled at Northwest Florida State College, called her nomination to the Air Force Academy “an incredible honor. It’s the next step to better serve my country.”
The end of the nomination process is “actually really relieving,” she said. Jillian literally had tripped as she entered her interview, and while she felt she recovered nicely, she was clearly relieved that her first step toward an academy education was behind her. Asked what was the worst part of the nomination process, she replied simply, “Waiting.”
Parents also were dealing with shock and excitement as the nominations were announced.
“It’s literally a ‘pinch-me’ moment,” said Zach Brown’s mother, Nicole.
“I’m very proud — extremely proud,” added Zach’s father, Daniel.
If he is accepted to the Air Force Academy, Zach will follow his father to a career in the Air Force. But neither of his parents pressured him to pursue an Air Force education.
“We left it up to him,” his father said.
George Hass, a Choctawhatchee High School student, was among the young people celebrating a nomination to the Naval Academy. His parents, Michael Hass and Pam Stafford, served as officers in the Air Force, but had no problems with their son’s nomination. As the youngest of four children, if Hass is accepted by the Naval Academy he’ll be the first child for whom his parents won’t have to foot the bill for a college education.
A service academy nomination is “quite a way to ride out of high school,” Gaetz told one of the nominees after Tuesday’s assembly.
Asked if he had any advice for the nominees as they enter the individual academies’ selection process, Gaetz said, “Keep the foot on the gas pedal.”
Gaetz has been proactive in encouraging high school students in his congressional district to consider getting an education at one of the military academies. His office arranged “Academy Nights” at a couple high schools last year to let interested students know about the process of applying to an academy. That effort produced what Gaetz called “a big universe of applicants” from which Tuesday’s nominees were chosen.