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Cadet Tells About Journey to Air Force Academy

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 31, 2004 – The road to the Air Force Academy was a special journey for 21-year-old cadet Nicholas Butler.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Academy senior cadet Nicholas Butler speaks to more than 400 attendees at the Military Child Education Coalition conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., recently. He told the conferees they had to ensure "no one falls through the cracks -- especially military children." Photo by Rudi Williams

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

His odyssey to the academy was punctuated by his experiences in the Defense Department's school system. Butler was tapped to speak to the sixth annual conference of the Military Child Education Coalition held in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this summer.

MCEC is a nonprofit organization that works to identify educational challenges facing military children, create awareness of those challenges, and encourage and support opportunities for changes.

Butler, an English major with a special emphasis in film production and criticism, acknowledged that he didn't know anything about the organization when we was invited to speak about his education experiences.

The cadet, who hopes to go on to become an intelligence officer, told the group he was proud and honored to be asked to speak at the conference. He said he was happy to be "a part of a military that's moving in the right direction towards the support of military families."

Butler said he spent his early school years moving around with his active duty Air Force father. His parents had divorced when Butler was young, and he went with his dad to his first assignment in Japan.

He noted he barely saw his dad because he worked long hours on the flight line. The babysitter had generally put Butler to bed by the time his father came home at night.

His father was assigned to Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Mich., three years later. There, Butler was able to spend more time with his mother, who worked near the base.

But fed up with long, arduous hours on the flight line, his father applied for medical-equipment repair school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. "Since the school was so long, I was able to go with him," Butler said, noting he attended parts of two school years in Texas.

His father then received orders to George Air Force Base, Calif., where Butler attended year-round school in the civilian community. After three years, his father was again assigned to Texas, this time at Dyess Air Force Base.

"Fortunately, year-round school in California had turned me into a geek, and I was nearly a year ahead of everyone else," he said. "Of course, standing out is never a great quality for any new kid, although I excelled academically."

The senior Butler's next assignment, to Germany, was like a hard punch in the gut for young Butler. "I pouted about that with my stuffed animal collection for weeks," he said. "I was getting older and more idealistic, and somehow I thought that we wouldn't have to move until I went to high school."

He said he thought he had all the reasons remain in the States. "I was getting recruited by the soccer team," Butler said. "I had friends, and we were going to make the same life transitions.

At first, Butler remained to finish out the school year, and he got to play organized soccer. But before long, he joined his father in Germany. Things were a bit different from what he thought they'd be in finishing out his high-school career overseas.

"I went from playing soccer against teams from across town, to teams from across the continent," he noted. "I was going to school with a handful of other military brats to a (DoD dependents) school in Wiesbaden, where everyone had something to do with the military. I was going to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, instead of going fishing."

Also, Butler said, he wasn't the only new kid. "Tons of students were moving in at the same time."

But going to school in Europe had a downside, Butler said. He recalled having to ride a bus 45 minutes each way from his home in Rhein-Main to the school in Wiesbaden. "I think that a whole year of my life was spent riding a bus," he said.

Butler told the audience that he figured out through other students what school clubs there were, where to sign up for sports, what classes he could take, and who to hang out with.

He said he received help about where to go to college from his soccer coach. "I applied to the strangest assortment of colleges you'd ever think of -- New College in South Florida, which is for hippie writers; University of Michigan; Auburn; Evergreen College, in Washington; West Point; Boston College; and the Air Force Academy.

"I had no idea what I was doing," Butler said. "I was some strange student from a military family overseas asking for thousands of dollars to attend a university that I didn't even understand why I wanted to go to," he said.

A month before the end of his senior year, he was wait-listed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He had been turned down by New College, couldn't afford to go out of state, and didn't want to go to Michigan anymore because the basketball team he idolized was going downhill.

Butler said also that his father had sat down with him a year before and said, 'Son, if you're going to want to go to college, you're going to have to pay for it. I don't have any money to help you.'"

A few weeks before graduation, Butler hadn't been accepted anywhere and was too embarrassed to say that. He told most people he was going to Michigan, but he was holding out to hear from West Point and the Air Force Academy.

"I'd done (Junior ROTC) all four years, was the commander of the top drill team in Europe, had a stack of rainbow ribbons that would put Audie Murphy (World War II Medal of Honor recipient and movie actor) to shame, and fit the profile," he said.

A few days later, he received a rejection letter from West Point and the next day the same from the Air Force Academy. "I'd won Army and Air Force (ROTC) scholarships, but had nowhere to use them because it was getting too late," Butler said.

Soon after, he noted, he got a letter from the Falcon Foundation. Every year the foundation offers 100 people on the edge of getting into the Air Force Academy an opportunity to go to a military college for a year of preparatory school.

"I hated the idea, and I told my English teacher about the letter, half joking about it," Butler said. "He sits me down and says, 'Nick, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. You're going to succeed anywhere you go, but you've got to get there first. Don't pass this up.'"

Butler accepted the scholarship and went to New Mexico Military Institute for a year, then entered the Air Force Academy.

Butler told the gathering there's more to him than the story he was telling about his life as a military brat. "I'm more than a name and a number, and so is every student that you come into contact with," he said. "I think in each of your hearts, you all acknowledge that the effect that you potentially have on children is life-altering."

He told the educators their role in students' lives isn't as much helping them to get into the best possible college as it's helping to make their lives as happy as can be.

"It's about making sure that no one falls through the cracks -- especially military children," Butler noted.

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