Four years ago, Bryce Wilberding, Adam Jackson and Stephen Sawyer posed for a photo next to an American flag at Rosemount High School’s military recognition day, arms slung around one another and grinning like three seniors on the cusp of graduation.
This spring, they earned diplomas from the nation’s three largest military service academies, spurred by family ties to service for some and a high school set in a southeastern-metro community that houses the National Guard.
Rosemount is home to the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. The trio from 2012 — Wilberding, who went to West Point; Jackson, who went to the Air Force Academy, and Sawyer, who went to the Naval Academy — shined in their class of around 2,000 students, said Rosemount High principal John Wollersheim.
“For any kid to stand out in a class, it takes a special kid,” Wollersheim said.
The three aren’t wasting any time before starting life after graduation.
In July, Wilberding will report to Oklahoma for a basic officer leader course, and then will head to his next duty station in Colorado. After a trip to Europe with friends, Jackson will start medical school at the University of Minnesota in August, and then will spend time as a captain in the Air Force. And Sawyer is at Georgetown University in an accelerated one-year master’s program, and he’ll follow that with flight school to become a Navy pilot.
Though their college experience was atypical, their feelings for the future are those of any college grad: a mix of nervousness and excitement. The part Wilberding is most looking forward to? “Probably joining the greatest army in the world,” he said.
Before the training and the discipline, they were three teens at Rosemount High, home of the Irish in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.
Wilberding ran track and played linebacker on the football team. He sported jersey No. 1 to highlight being a role model for students, said head football coach Jeff Erdmann.
Jackson ran track and played football, too, but he was a wrestling star and one of the top competitors in the state, said Wollersheim.
Sawyer, said Wollersheim, was one of the best singing talents to come through Rosemount High. Sawyer starred in choir and theater productions, and also was involved in track.
“We oftentimes didn’t have maybe the resources or the star power that some of the other high schools in Minnesota had,” Sawyer said. “But one thing we did have was work ethic and a lot of pride and a lot of just sense of self and the same camaraderie that you’d find in the Naval Academy.”
Head track coach Jay Hatleli said that while Wilberding and Sawyer weren’t the best athletes on the team, they had a strong work ethic and commitment — “all the things that you want your team to be,” he said.
Interest in the military builds as students see others getting ROTC scholarships with full pay or heading to service academies, Wollersheim said. Free tuition at the service academies is guaranteed with service time.
“The fact that some students have accomplished this leads to other students seeing that it’s something they can accomplish,” Wollersheim said.
Wilberding, Jackson and Sawyer carried their extracurricular interests into their academies.
Wilberding, an economics major, continued to work out, trained in England and Germany, and studied abroad.
Jackson, who was pre-med with a biology major, kept wrestling for the Air Force Academy and did a summer research project in Nevada.
Sawyer, who majored in economics and political science, was in the men’s glee club, sang for three presidents and attended the London School of Economics.
It wasn’t easy.
“The service academies are designed to test you and find out what your limits are and sometimes break you down but other times build you back up,” said Sawyer, whose father is also an Air Force Academy graduate.
His mother, Cindy Sawyer, said that on one of his first days, he forgot a canteen and was brought up in front of his company. Everyone had to do pushups to pay for the mistake.
“It was those mistakes that really helped foster their spirit,” she said.
Basic training was a culture shock for Jackson, he said. His first jump out of an airplane was solo, which was a great but terrifying experience, he said. His brother, Grant, is at West Point, where he runs track.
“He’s kind of got the personality that fits well with the military academy,” said his mother, Nikki Jackson.
Everyone Wilberding met at West Point shared his values of physical fitness and discipline, he said.
His mother, Judy Kaldenberg, whose father served in World War II, said she was initially apprehensive about her son’s interest in the armed forces.
But Wilberding was gung-ho. After his four years at the academy, she feels supported and has watched her son mature.
Wilberding is looking forward to the new horizons.
“My plan right now is to keep going as long as I enjoy it and I foresee myself enjoying it,” Wilberding said. “I don’t know how I couldn’t.”