OKEECHOBEE — Nathaniel Bean, who grew up in Okeechobee, was accepted as a student at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) and just completed his first semester. Nathaniel was homeschooled and graduated in 2016. During his last semester of high school, he began night classes to learn a trade. It took him two years, and he received a certificate as an auto service technician. Over the summer, he worked as a lifeguard at the county pool while he was taking classes at night. He also worked at the Ford dealership for a few months before getting a job at E&E Automotive, where he worked for more than two years. Part of that time, he was still in trade school, and he continued working there after he completed the course.
He is not quite sure how he ended up in the Air Force Academy, because, until the day he happened upon it while attending a conference, he never even knew it existed. He had heard about West Point, of course, but did not realize the other branches of service had academies as well. He went to a conference in Colorado, and while driving around one day, he saw the chapel which is located just north of Colorado Springs and is the most visited man-made tourist attraction in Colorado. He said it was very unusual with all the spikes, and you can see it from far away. They are in the process of tearing the building down and rebuilding it now, because it has always leaked, and it will take several years to complete the endeavor.
Nathaniel asked a friend what the building was, and she told him it was the USAFA Cadet Chapel. When he returned home from his trip, he began investigating and saw all the opportunities afforded to the students who attend. Nathaniel’s goal is to become a pilot, and in order to be a pilot in the Air Force, you must first be an officer.
There are a few ways to become an officer. You can enlist in the Air Force and go to college on the side, because an officer must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Once you have your degree, you can try to get into officer training school. Another choice is to go to a regular college and join the ROTC program. Once you graduate, you will commission. The third option is to go to a service academy.
He decided he wanted to get the best training possible and thought he would probably get the best training at a place designed for that purpose. He discovered the application process is a lot more involved than for most colleges. For one thing, he had to get a recommendation from a congressman. He applied to Tom Rooney, who was his county’s House representative at the time. He also applied to both of the Florida senators, who at that time were Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson. Each of them requires an application, and the applications are not the same. They all required different things from the applicant. He found that one of them had a deadline which was less than a month away. He did them all as quickly as he could but still did them well. He was called in for interviews, and when he went in, there were other people sitting there waiting, too. When he finally went in, there was a delegation of people who were chosen to represent the congressmen, and they asked him a lot of questions. Then, he had to wait to hear from someone. In the meantime, he had to work on the application to the school, which was completely different than the other applications. He began to question whether it was worth all the effort he was putting in. “Maybe I should just stay here. I have a good job already. I don’t even know if I will get in,” he thought, but he got a call from a lady, who was assigned to him from USAFA, and she encouraged him to at least try. She convinced him he would regret it if he gave up without knowing if he could have made it. He ended up getting nominations from Rep. Rooney and Sen. Nelson.
Nathaniel left Okeechobee in June to attend the in-processing day. His first task was to complete boot camp or Basic Cadet Training. When he arrived, he found himself the old man of the group. Almost everyone else is only 17, 18 maybe even 19, and Nathaniel is 21. Often, when a young man applies, he is told he is not ready and is sent to a prep school for a year, which results in some of the students turning 19 before they are accepted.
Basic Cadet Training lasted six weeks. “It’s like a shock factor when you get there,” he said. “The first few days are the worst. You aren’t used to it, and they aren’t very nice.” Each squad loses an average of two people during basic, mostly for medical reasons. Usually if it is a medical thing, they are allowed back the following year.
After basic, they begin their official school year which he said is a lot better than basic, but not great. They are still in training while also attending classes. The training is more subject-based, though — things like land navigation or combat medical care. Nathaniel will finish that training in March but will still have classes for a little over three years.
The upperclassmen act as trainers, squad commanders, supervisors, etc. Juniors and seniors fill most of those positions, with the seniors filling the officer positions. Juniors and sophomores have enlisted ranks. As you move through the classes, you are given more responsibility.
The days are long and filled with different activities throughout the day. The freshmen begin before 6 o’clock by memorizing the daily schedule, and then they form up in the hallway and yell these things out so the upperclassmen will wake up and will know what’s going on that day. Even on the days they don’t have to do that, they must have their doors open by 7 a.m., and they remain open all day. Most of them hang out in the library any time they are not in class, because while in there, they are considered “at rest,” and they can walk around and talk like normal people. Any time they go outside on the terrazzo, a large pavilion in the center of all the buildings, they must run unless it is icy.
Breakfast and supper are informal, and you can go in any time they are serving, but lunch is required, and the entire cadet wing, about 4,000 cadets, form up on the terrazzo in their squads and march to lunch.
Nathaniel is studying Russian. It is a strategic language, and they thought he could do it. Other classes included calculus, behavioral science, computer science, English and physical education his first semester.
At 7:45 p.m., they can go to their rooms, close their doors and work on their schoolwork. No one can bother them after that time.
He is already considered active duty, and after he graduates, he is committed to remain in the military for a minimum of five years. This is, in part, to pay for the school which was free. There is no guarantee he will become a pilot, though. Over his years in the school, he will be ranked, along with all the other cadets. The higher your ranking, the more likely you will get the job of your choice. You are ranked based on academics, athletics and military. Since he wants a specific job, it is important he do well in all areas in order to get a high ranking. Everyone will graduate and be commissioned as a second lieutenant, and they will all get paid the same amount, but, in the end, they will not all have the same chance to get the job of their choice.
Nathaniel looks forward to returning to school on Saturday, Jan. 4, and probably will not be back in Okeechobee until summer.