By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneSeptember 25, 2009
Matthew Wilson didn't know his dad during his Army years.
By the time the younger Wilson was born, John Wilson was getting ready to retire from a 22-year stint as an Army officer.
But growing up in a post-Army family hasn't kept Wilson from finding his own way into the military's officer ranks.
"I still feel like I've grown up in an Army family," he said. "I knew my father had served and so had my grandfather. It was something I knew I was always going to do."
Wilson has begun his senior year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His graduation with a bachelor's in electrical engineering in May 2010 will be the culmination of a goal he set after attending West Point's Summer Leaders Seminar following his junior year at Grissom High.
"I attended the leadership courses at West Point and the Naval Academy," Wilson said. "The programs are meant to expose students to the rigors, to the reality of the military academy.
"I really liked the atmosphere at West Point. I made good friends during that week who I am still in touch with. I had a great squad leader. I liked everything about it."
It didn't take long for Wilson to realize that West Point was the place for him. And, as he decided his path, Wilson's parents dedicated themselves to providing support to their son and other Alabama West Point cadets. They have both served as the president of the West Point Parents Club of Alabama, and continue to assist with club activities.
"For many of the parents of these cadets, they don't really know what the military is all about," John Wilson said. "We are here to support the cadets and to help other parents understand what their son or daughter is going through as a cadet and how they can support them."
There are about 60 cadets from Alabama who currently attend West Point. Of those, 28 are plebes (first-year freshmen). There are 1,100 cadets in Wilson's senior class, down from the 1,364 who started with him as plebes. There are 16 West Point cadet seniors from Alabama.
With the new collegiate year under way, West Point admissions liaisons are now working with high school juniors and seniors who are interested in the benefits of a West Point education. Every year, 14,000 applicants nationwide apply to West Point. Of those last year, 125 were from Alabama and 41 were from the fifth congressional district, said Reserves Maj. Josh Kennedy, a West Point admissions liaison who works for the Aviation and Missile Command's Operations Analysis Branch.
"This district is in the top five most competitive in terms of the number of applicants based on our population and the quality of applicants," Kennedy said.
High school students interested in a service academy experience should consider attending a summer leadership course between their junior and senior year. Although not a prerequisite for attending a service academy, the experience can help a student decide if a military education is meant for them.
Applicants to West Point are admitted through a congressional nomination from their district representative, such as District 5's Rep. Parker Griffith. Griffith hosted the annual Academy Day with representatives from all the service academies on Sept. 13 at Madison Academy to provide interested high school students information about the application process.
"If they attend Academy Day, then there is already an interest in attending a military academy," Kennedy said. "It's a great way to get the application process out in the open and to talk to kids about what they have to do to get a nomination."
Representatives and senators can nominate up to 10 candidates annually who then compete for admission. West Point candidates can also receive a presidential or vice presidential nomination.
Once they are nominated, admission applicants are considered based on their academics (carries about two-thirds weight), athletics (about 10 percent) and leadership (about 20 percent).
"At West Point, we are looking for a well-rounded applicant that has a broad mix demonstrating academic talents, physical abilities and leadership aptitude," Kennedy said.
Leadership can be shown in a variety of ways by high school students, including serving as a JRTOC cadet officer or the quarterback on the football team.
"We are looking for demonstrated leadership in a physically demanding environment," Kennedy said.
There are no quotas for minorities at West Point, but there are targets that admissions liaisons try to reach for females, African-Americans and Hispanics.
"We actively work the admissions and recruiting process harder with minorities. But if they don't qualify they aren't going," Kennedy said.
West Point and other service academies offer cadets a free college education in exchange for military service upon graduation. For many, a service academy education can open the doors to opportunities in both the military and civilian arenas.
"The majority of leaders in the Army come out of West Point because of the screening process," said John Wilson. "If, early on, you know you want to be a leader in the Army then you should try for West Point. We encouraged Matthew that if he wanted to be a leader in the Army then he should see if he can go to West Point."
"But we didn't push him," said Matthew's mother, Caroline Wilson. "It has to be the child's decision. Sure, it's an honor. But there are so many hard things that a cadet has to do that no one else can do but that person themselves. They've got to want to do it to be successful."
Caroline Wilson knew that her son's acceptance to West Point would mean sacrifices for the family. Because West Point is so far away, the Wilsons don't often see their son.
"As a mom, I was kind of selfish. We had Plan B and Plan C if West Point didn't happen," she said. "I was kind of thinking that maybe he could take ROTC in college and stay closer to home. I asked a lot 'Are you sure'' But you have to let them decide and choose their path."
The West Point experience for plebes includes Beast Barracks, a seven-week basic training during which communication with family and friends is only allowed through the postal mail. During their first year, plebes are charged with much of the manual labor of West Point life, they must memorize things like the daily menu and how long until a school holiday, and they must call out the time for various events.
"You quickly learn little tricks to memorize things," Wilson said. "The most important thing is you have to be hard working. You also have to be able to put up with a lot of stuff and you have to be optimistic."
Those first few weeks of Beast Barracks were especially tough.
"I remember asking myself 'What am I doing here' Why am I sitting here lining my hats up on a shelf'' At some point, if you don't question why you are there, then there is something wrong with you," Wilson said.
At West Point, every cadet is considered an athlete. That philosophy was a natural fit for Wilson, who played football at Grissom. Cadets are required to participate as an athlete at the collegiate level, or on a club or intramural squad.
"You don't have to be in JROTC to go to West Point. You don't have to be the captain of the football team. But you do have to be athletic," Wilson said.
Wilson said West Point cadets are made aware when a graduate has been killed in combat. Since 2001, about 75 West Point graduates have lost their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Knowing that serves to focus us. That's why we are training out in a field on Saturday morning," Wilson said.
West Point cadets stay busy even during their summer breaks. After his freshman year, Wilson participated in field training exercises. This past summer, he was a squad leader for field training exercises and attended airborne school.
Wilson is not the only member of his family actively pursuing a military career. His older brother, Andrew, is serving as a second lieutenant with the 1st of the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
Recently, both sons were home for the Labor Day weekend, attending the Grissom-Huntsville football game together. It was a special time for a family that is often separated by service. Besides their sons' commitment to the Army, John Wilson is now preparing to run for a state senate seat.
For Wilson, May 2010 will bring new challenges. After graduation, he will be assigned to military intelligence with a detail toward armor. He will leave West Point with a quality education, a commitment to the Army ethics, a determination to make a difference in his service to his country, and four years of memories and friendships.
"Because of West Point, I have so many friends from places like Alaska, Maryland, Texas, Nebraska and California. It's a great group of guys. We've spent four years doing homework together, hanging out, doing formations and handling all that West Point has to offer," he said.
"Whether West Point is for you depends on what you are looking for. If you want the college experience of Friday night parties and things like that, then don't go to West Point. But, if you want to learn about leadership, discipline and service, then West Point and its opportunities might be just right for you."
Editor's note: For more information about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, check out its website at http://www.usma.edu/ or contact Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 876-6416 or 975-5733.