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The military class: More Gwinnett seniors choosing service life

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Eileen Dilks received a nice birthday gift this year: letters of assurance from both the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy.

The letters guaranteed her that she would be admitted to either military service academy, pending a nomination from a member of Congress.

"I was crazy excited," said Dilks, who is graduating this month from Central Gwinnett High School. "That's when everyone else was starting to apply to college."

Dilks, a self-described "tough cookie type," decided to attend the Naval Academy after visiting the campuses of both schools. Plebe summer begins June 28.

Dilks said she plans to major in biology or chemistry. In exchange for her degree, room and board, Dilks will be required to give five years of service after graduation. If she earns one of the 23 medical slots and continues to medical school, as she hopes, her service time will be extended to 10 years.

More and more Gwinnett County students are electing to attend the prestigious military service academies. Five years ago, five students received military academy appointments. This year, 14 soon-to-be Gwinnett graduates will attend military academies.

Jack Clark, 20, a 2009 graduate of North Gwinnett High School, decided to apply for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because his sister, Casey Gerdes, attended the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"She's the one that opened me up to the federal academies," Clark said.

Five of the eight federal academies run by the U.S. government are military academies: U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., and U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The military academies exist to provide students with undergraduate education and train commissioned officers for the U.S. armed forces.

"It's just a four-year school to me. It's just college," Clark said of West Point, adding, "But it's a lot more structured."

From 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Clark said his time is pretty much taken up. He's required to attend breakfast and lunch formation, go to class and participate in athletics. In the evenings, homework keeps him busy.

Cadets can't have cars on campus until their junior year, but Clark said New York City is just a short train ride away. There's some opportunity to have fun on weekends, but overall, it's strict, disciplined environment.

"I don't mind not partying," he said. "All my teachers in high school would say I was a good kid, but I wasn't the best student. I didn't learn how to study until freshman year at West Point. (In high school), I was much more devoted to athletics and hanging out with friends rather than studying at home."

Clark said his study skills grew as he learned the importance of time management.

"It really allowed me to see what I was capable of doing," he said, "I never thought I could do so much.

"It's an opportunity you won't get anywhere else, and the government pays for it."