By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- As a ninth grader at Randolph-Macon Academy, David Lee knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up.
"There is nothing more prestigious and honorable than fighting for your country," he said Tuesday morning. "It's not a career track I grew up with or was forced into ... I just know it's what I'm supposed to do."
Now a 17-year-old senior at the academy, Lee will be among the first group of cadets to complete the four-year High Flight program, a preparatory track specifically designed for students who wish to attend a United States service academy and/or become a military officer.
The program has proven so successful that it earned R-MA recognition as one of Virginia's top high schools in Virginia Living's October 2013 "State of Education."
Commandant Col. Gary Sadler and Gen. Henry Hobgood, former president of the academy, decided to form the program when they realized that cadets were applying to service academies, but weren't consistently being accepted.
Tens of thousands apply to the military academies, but about 10 percent get accepted, he said.
"We realized that we had been through the process, and understood what kind of person these academies want as service cadets," he said. "So we figured out all the pieces of the puzzle that would prepare a cadet above and beyond what was expected and put it all into four years."
Students have to apply to get into the High Flight program. Typically, around five students from each grade participate -- a small percentage of the student body.
If a student starts the program, he or she is expected to finish by applying to either a service academy or to a school with an ROTC program upon graduation.
Each year, High Flight cadets are assigned to a different mentor who works with them through physical training, academic preparation, applications to service summer seminars, and the final letters, applications and interviews leading to acceptance.
The program seems to be working -- the academy has four graduates in several branches of the service academies.
Cadets are required to rise each morning for a 6 a.m. physical training session. They're also encouraged to participate in as many challenging courses and extra-curricular activities as possible.
Louisa Stanwich, a 17-year-old senior, joined the academy in ninth grade, and immediately jumped into the High Flight program.
Although she had no family history or background with the military lifestyle, she felt such a career track would set her apart later in life.
She plans to apply to fewer than 20 schools, all with ROTC programs. Stanwich would also like to study public affairs or communications, and possibly even meteorology, and use her education while in the Air Force.
"I think it'd be really amazing to be a meteorologist for the Air Force," she said. "There's no reason why I can't study what interests me and also continue with this military lifestyle. I like it, and I think my parents wish they had had an opportunity like this when they were younger."
Lee also had no military background when he came to the academy in middle school. Now, he said he hopes to go to West Point and eventually serve in the infantry.
"I'm looking forward to the combat," he said. "I know not everyone is willing to do that, but I'm ready to take on the challenge."
Lee has already completed an interview that is part of the application process, and said he felt more than comfortable going into it. He had prepared by studying possible questions, interview tips and keeping up with his physical training. Lee said he knows every deadline associated with the service academy applications and letters to congressmen and senators.
"This program has been very thorough and meticulous in preparing us," he said.
During his summer seminar, R-MA was mentioned as producing outstanding cadets.
"I felt very proud to say, 'That's my school,'" Lee said. "R-MA has done more for me than I could've ever imagined."
Stanwich is looking forward to the end of the school year, when all the applications are said and done. She said knowing she was able to complete such a demanding program will leave quite a feeling of accomplishment.
"I know that going to R-MA is a very unique high school experience, with the amount of diversity and opportunity presented to us every day," she said. "I wouldn't change a thing about it."
Sadler said the cadets who participate in the High Flight program are a testament to the generations coming forward -- especially since they commit to the military experience at such a young age.
"To these young people, service is more important than fame, more important than stature," he said. "It's people like them that keep our country, our country, and we should be very proud of that."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org