By Rich Place
You could hear a pin drop in the SGI High School Library for a few moments last Wednesday afternoon, as senior Benn Smith paused briefly with two letters of intent in front of him.
Nearly four dozen family members, friends and school faculty gathered for a unique ceremony for Benn, who was presented a rare decision of choosing between the Air Force Academy or West Point to further his education.
He eventually put on a camouflage Air Force ball cap to a round of applause from those in attendance, displaying his choice of the Colorado-based academy over West Point.
“My first instinct, my first gut feeling, was Air Force Academy,” he said after the ceremony. “I don’t really know why that was, it was just a gut feeling.”
However, that gut feeling came after a tremendous amount of research that included calling alumni from each academy and also looking into how each would impact his post-education career.
The decision came following an emotional presentation by his older brother, Jake, a member of the ROTC at SUNY Brockport. The brothers’ parents, Mark and Jen Smith, looked on, often teary-eyed.
The letter signing ceremony — often for ceremonial decisions made by athletes — was held, in part, because of the rarity of a student being accepted to both academies and being presented with such a decision. According to high school principal James Bialasik, the acceptance rate for the Air Force Academy is 14 percent and West Point’s is less than 9 percent.
“I know very, very few people who have gotten into either one of these schools,” Bialasik said. “I think being accepted to both is pretty monumental.”
Jake, who himself had applied to academies like West Point, explained to the audience the rigorous process of applying to such schools during a 15-minute presentation that exhibited the close bond the brothers share.
Each process not only includes traditional submissions like SAT scores, a resume, transcripts and letters of recommendation, but also a second round of applications should a candidate be accepted to proceed to that next step.
The second round includes certified fitness tests — Benn had to do one for each school, Jake noted — as well as physical exams. Then comes three or four essays for each academy and a Congressional nomination that includes more essays, letters of recommendation and an interview with ex-military and political representatives.
Much of Jake’s presentation to honor his brother was personal, displaying photos of the pair growing up and using analogies like baking sugar cookies and going fishing to give advice.
“I know you better than anyone else in the room and the same goes with you to me,” Jake said. “It hit me today we aren’t little kids anymore. Today, this is the day you turn and go your own way.”
In brief comments before making his decision, Benn said in recent weeks he’s been decided why he wanted to join the military.
“I’m joining the military to make a difference, to join the 1 percent of Americans who live their lives on the line every day for the safety of loved ones back home,” he said. “I’m joining to give back to the many veterans who gave up all they had for years to protect the rights every American citizen is given at birth.”
His decision was solidified by a visit with an 87-year-old Air Force veteran who shared his story with Benn over spring break and got choked up talking about his years of service and the memorable times he had.
“I’m going because I want to do something more than just be a biology major,” Benn said. “I want to be a biology major who is getting one of the best educations possible with some of the best men and women in the nation who are all coming together to make a difference.”
The ceremony ended with Benn sitting at the ceremonial table, decorated with the purple SGI cloth used in many such events. A T-shirt, hat and letter of intent for the Air Force — and the same set for West Point — laid before him as he made his decision.
After a few moments and with a smile, he tossed the Army ball cap the way of his brother seated next to him and quipped, “I’m going to let you handle that” before donning the Air Force hat. The decision was not even known by his brother or parents, they said.
Benn’s high school resume includes serving as president of SADD, treasurer with National Honor Society and treasurer for the last four years with his class. He’s also captain of envirothon and said he’s competed in wrestling, golf and baseball.
“I think all of us who know Benn know that he is the total package,” Bialasik said. “He is a person of character, he is strong academically and just makes our school a better place each and every day and we appreciate all that he does in terms of his leadership.”