WEST POINT, New York (Reuters) - Climbing ropes and crawling in the mud under barbed wire, dozens of American high school kids at an unusual summer camp vied to see who could get most dirty as they tackled an Army obstacle course.
And as they ran between obstacles in the woods, the kids shouted Army chants. Asked by a cadet if they were motivated, they shouted back in unison: “Motivated, motivated, downright motivated. Ooh, aah, ooh, aah, I want to kill somebody.”
Each summer, 800 high school kids hoping to become soldiers spend a week at West Point to see what life is like at the prestigious U.S. military academy for future army officers.
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan straining the U.S. military and public support low for the Iraq war, recruiting future officers might seem a tough sell. But officials say applications to the summer program are at a record high.
West Point says it recruits “scholars, leaders and athletes.” Kids at the Summer Leadership Seminar, a week-long residential program held over two sessions, have top grades and are strong in sports and extra-curricular activities.
Alex Imbriale, a 17-year-old from North Carolina who is captain of his school’s rifle team, attributed his interest in West Point to his father, who is in the army. But there were plenty of students on the program who are not “army brats.”
Kathleen Engle, 16, from Fairfield, California, said she had looked into the Peace Corps and other options but decided on the military.
“I was in fifth grade when 9/11 happened and that’s when I decided the best thing I could do for my country was this,” she said, playing a video game called “America’s Army.”
“I guess it’s going to be hard to kill someone, but if that’s your job and that’s what our commander tells us we need to do, I‘m going to do that in order to protect my country.”
Mario Vazquez, 17, from El Paso, Texas, hopes to be a neurosurgeon but first he says he has a duty to America.
“My Mom is actually the one that found out about it,” he said of the West Point summer program. “My mother is from Mexico ... she said it’s a good place to get discipline.”
“I owe a lot to this country because of what it’s given me, because of what it’s given my family, but I also have fears because it’s a lot of sacrifice,” he said. “You put your country before yourself and you sacrifice your family and a lot of other privileges.”
Austin Fullmer, 17, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, said he was attracted by the prospect of moving around the world and seeing new places, and although he would be nervous about deploying to a combat zone, “it’s just another adventure.”
“I didn’t quite realize there were this many kids like me,” he said, grinning as he sat in the doorway of Blackhawk helicopter parked in a field.
Graduates of the academy founded in 1802 include former President Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. forces in the first Gulf War, and astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
During their week at the picturesque campus on the banks of the Hudson river in New York state, the high-school students are immersed in cadet life.
They are woken at 5 a.m for physical training, they march in formation under the command of current cadets, take academic workshops and spend a day in the field.
“We’re able to pick the most competitive students,” said Lt. Col. Dean Batchelder, who handles admissions. There were 3,674 applications for 800 places on the high-school program.
Those who attend are not guaranteed admission to the academy -- which offers a four-year college education in return for a commitment of five years active duty and three years as a reservist -- but they stand a good chance, he said.
“I‘m not here to screen them,” Batchelder added. “We’re not trying to weed out the weak, we’re trying to give them the information so they can make a better choice.”
Her jeans and pink shirt caked in mud, her face daubed with camouflage cream, 17-year-old Elise Fink put on a flak jacket, stuffed her blonde ponytail under a helmet, and climbed up into the gun turret of a Humvee to check out the machine gun.
“In Iraq you’ll be carrying about 40 pounds more than that,” Specialist Justin Fletcher, a 10th Mountain Division soldier who returned from Iraq late last year, told her.
The grand-daughter of two brigadier generals and daughter of a lieutenant colonel, Fink says her family was supportive of her interest in West Point or the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Her friends in Wilton, Connecticut, less so.
“My town doesn’t do military,” Fink said. “My town is very anti-war right now, so to join the military means you’re pro-war, and a lot of my friends are anti-war.”
“When I said that I was planning on doing ROTC or coming to West Point, they said ‘I don’t want you to get killed.'”
Fink says support or disapproval of the war in Iraq is irrelevant to her military ambitions. “I feel it’s my duty, and it’s people’s duty to serve their country in some way,” she said. “This is the way I chose.”
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Wilson, who runs the summer academic program, said applications for the Summer Leadership Seminar were at a record high this year.
“I‘m not sure how the fact that we’re a nation at war has influenced the motivation of any particular student to apply,” he said. “I think that there is a strong sense of service in this generation.”
Life as a cadet at West Point is highly regimented, with every detail from how to fold your underwear to the position of personal items on your desk dictated by regulations.
Jordy Kronshag, a 17-year-old from Callumet, Michigan, whose skill at the pole vault made her the equal of much larger males on the obstacle course, said she enjoyed the teamwork and leadership training but was still unsure about applying to become a cadet.
“This is the fun part,” she said, her clothes muddy from the low crawl under barbed wire. “But also a part I don’t like is all the yelling and the hazing, that’s going to be tough.”
On a day set aside for academic workshops, students in one group staged a mock murder trial. Others built a light-seeking robot in an electrical engineering class.
A third group played “Double Philosophy Jeopardy,” with pop culture categories showing how characters in “Star Wars” or “The Simpsons” illustrate stoicism or the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche.
At a panel discussion with 10 current cadets one evening, the students asked about free time, punishments for alcohol use, how much cadets work out, whether they have online courses, how cold winters are and how much sleep cadets get.
Cadet John Williams said he applied to West Point for the wrong reasons and didn’t know much about it in advance.
“I know a lot of you are doing it for the wrong reasons,” he told the students. “You want people to be proud of you, it’s pretty prestigious, you don’t want to let people down,” he said. “That might not be a bad thing.”
“I came for the wrong reasons, I’ve definitely stayed for the right reasons.”
(For West Point slang, click on)
Reporting by Claudia Parsons; Editing by Eddie Evans