SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD Bre Davis is a peppy blond who owns glittery Converse sneakers and always has each of her toenails painted a different color.
That's how most of her classmates at Sickles High School think of her, she said.
But she's also an accomplished diver and a lifelong straight-A student who dreams of being a doctor.
On June 28, Davis will start basic training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Her peers often react to her college choice with surprise, she said.
She reminds them she's hardworking. She reminds them she's determined.
"When they remember that, they realize that West Point's a good choice for me," she said.
She's one of more than 20 high school seniors in Hillsborough County who received an appointment to a military academy this year.
Some see military academies as the best path to their chosen careers. Others cite the scholarship money as a deciding factor. A few look forward to the organized, regimented lifestyle.
All of them want to serve their country.
Although the decision might seem baffling in an era when the human cost of military service soars in the midst of two wars, the popularity of military academies hasn't waned. It has become more difficult to get into the already-competitive institutions: This year, applications to most of the country's military academies were up about 10 percent, on average, from the previous year, admissions officials said. Applications to the Coast Guard Academy were up 26 percent.
The Naval Academy alone received more than 17,400 applications for the Class of 2014, according to admissions statistics. Only about 1,200 of those applicants will be inducted July 1.
"It was a long and arduous process," said John Parks, 17, a Tampa Preparatory senior who will leave for the Naval Academy this summer.
The easy part? Passing physicals. A gymnast for 13 years who trains four hours every day, Parks said running and doing push-ups wasn't hard. Academy officials also pored over his medical history and his academic records.
Parks, as is required of all applicants, also needed an appointment. Most candidates receive their appointment from a congressional representative or state senator, although children of career military can receive a presidential appointment. Parks' appointment came from U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.
Brandon High senior Zack Baldwin, 18, received a presidential appointment before his senior year.
Baldwin, whose family moved to Brandon last year when his father retired from the Army after 22 years, has wanted to attend West Point since he was 8.
"Growing up, it was like, I never thought I'd get in," he said. "But finally, it happened."
Those who receive a congressional appointment go before a panel that asks them questions about their activities and current events.
It's a process that might be unfamiliar to graduates applying to traditional colleges or those who are from civilian families.
"They think it was like applying to USF or something," said Luly Socias, whose daughter, Christina Socias, will be attending West Point as part of the class of 2014. "The Army is picking the total person."
It's hard to narrow down the pool when all the candidates are impressive, said Mike Bedke, a Tampa attorney who has served on the selection committee for Rep. Kathy Castor's appointees several times. The selection process often comes down to a "gut reaction" on the panel's part, he said.
"It's humbling to see these kids' records," Bedke said. "You cannot be anything but proud and hopeful after you meet these applicants."
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In an economy where college is expensive and post-graduation jobs are scarce, military academies have two attractive lures: scholarship money and a guaranteed career path.
Parks, an only child, said he didn't want his parents to face the burden of putting him through his other top-choice schools, the University of Pennsylvania or the University of Michigan.
"I really didn't want my parents to have to pay like $55,000 a year," said Parks, who plans to major in nuclear engineering. "The Naval Academy is free."
Parks will pay nothing if he completes his required service after graduation for five years. If not, he will have to repay the government.
The military also offers guaranteed employment after graduation, a promise that other universities can't make. Christina Socias wants to be a diplomat or go into politics, and she said when she researched her career, she discovered that the military was a good way to get her foot in the door.
Most of these students considering military academies found their families and other adults supportive.
Some of their friends, though, told them they'd be missing out on the traditional college experience. Some heard they'd be wasting their time in the military.
Zak Spranger, 18, a senior at Jesuit High, tunes that out. He plans to attend the Air Force Academy starting this summer. The youngest of three boys, he'll be the third Spranger at the academy. His parents are also Air Force Academy graduates.
"When I tell some of my friends, they're like, 'Wow, you're an idiot,' " he said. "They kind of want me to have a normal life, but to me, that is normal."
There's no guarantee of peace or stability after graduation from a military academy, either. The years of required service could result in deployment anywhere, including Iraq or Afghanistan. Some of the teens say they aren't worried. Socias hopes diplomacy will shield her from the worst of the violence, and Parks brushes off the idea of being deployed to Iraq. He hopes to learn about nuclear engineering in France or Greece.
Regardless of whether they see themselves in combat, all the future military officers say choosing an academy is more than a decision to fight wars.
Baldwin said above all else, he just wants to give back to the Army.
Wars don't matter. Being a soldier does.
"That's all politics and government," Baldwin said. "Whatever my job is, I'm going to do it."
Hilary Lehman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.
BREAWNA DAVIS, 17
Graduating from: Sickles High
Attending: U.S. Military Academy
"I wanted to go somewhere that I could make a really big difference."
ZACKERY BALDWIN, 18
Graduating from: Brandon High
Attending: U.S. Military Academy
"I'll get opportunities to do things that most people never get the chance — that's what the video said."
DEBORAH SHIN, 18
Graduating from: Durant High
Attending: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy
"It's a really long war. I think we should just finish it now."
CHRISTINA SOCIAS, 17
Graduating from: Academy of the Holy Names
Attending: U.S. Military Academy
"I said to myself, if I get into West Point, there's no way I can pass that up."
ZAK SPRANGER, 18
Graduating from: Jesuit High
Attending: U.S. Air Force Academy
"The military gives you a lot, but you've got to give just as much back."
JOHN PARKS, 17
Graduating from: Tampa Preparatory School
Attending: U.S. Naval Academy
"They have a nuclear reactor at the school — how many schools have that?"