It began as an errant wish, then slowly evolved into a burning desire. Now, it’s reality.
Aiden Hopping, a 17-year-old home-schooled student from Dade City, has been accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, completing the rigorous entrance requirements and receiving an appointment nomination from U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
“It will be a huge change. But, I’m not nervous. I’m excited and eager, just ready to get started,” Hopping said.
“It’s the camaraderie, the sense of doing something great, serving your country, participating in athletics, the whole service academy life, being part of a school not many people get into … all of it,’’ said Hopping, who was an all-state defensive end at Hernando Christian, where he played football and basketball.
Hopping and his parents, Pete and Sue, are scheduled to leave for West Point on July 12. They plan on driving through the night in the family camper, giving Hopping plenty of time to orient to his new surroundings. His parents will drop him off so he can begin a scaled-down version of basic training — due to the coronavirus. They plan to return often for support.
Hopping has designs on becoming an infantry officer, perhaps joining the Special Forces, and he hopes to compete in football with the Army Black Knights.
“Aiden is a solid guy spiritually, academically, physically and emotionally,’’ Hopping’s mother said. “We’re definitely proud of him. We are at peace with his decision. We believe this is the Lord’s will for him.’’
Hopping, the only boy in a family of seven children, first got the military desire when he visited the National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, during a vacation nearly three years ago. No family members or close friends had been in the military, so Hopping’s idea was somewhat novel — and not initially accepted by his parents.
“We had to pray a lot,’’ Hopping’s mother said. “We were hesitant about the military. But, we let it sit and he didn’t push us. That would’ve been kind of disastrous. We got comfortable with it and now we have complete peace about it.
“He went for it as hard as he could, and he was blessed to be accepted. There will be tears, of course, but we’re very excited for him. He’s ready to go off and be part of this.’’
Hopping is accustomed to a life of independence and self-reliance. His parents, retired engineers, have a 20-acre farm. Initially, the family lived in a 1,400-square-foot “garage,’’ which now serves as a storage area.
They completed a 2,700-square-foot home on the property, where Hopping (then 13) did most of the interior woodworking. The family takes care of cows and goats, while growing a lot of the food used for meals. He’s accustomed to hard work, whether it’s chores, keeping up with his schoolwork or practicing football, perhaps his biggest passion.
With a sturdy 6-foot-1, 215-pound build, Hopping hopes to keep building up his body and landing a spot on Army’s football team.
He’s also an accomplished runner, having taken first and second place while competing individually in 5-kilometer races.
Speech and debate are his greatest out-of-classroom academic pursuits. He consistently placed high in National Christian Forensics and Communications Association (NCFCA) Informative Speech and Lincoln/Douglas Debate contests. He also took first place in the 12th Judicial Circuit High School Mock Trial competition.
“It has really been a valuable experience for me,’’ Hopping said. “It came easily to me and helped me to become a more well-rounded person. Speaking confidently in front of people is an important skill to learn, regardless of what you pursue. You learn to think on your feet and present a logical argument. It’s a great mental exercise, and it translates well to learning how to organize your thoughts and assume a leadership position.’’
Hopping’s background was helpful for the military academy vetting and nomination process, which generally emphasizes academics (60%), extracurricular activities (30%) and physical fitness (10%).
The discipline required for home-schooling should help Hopping’s academic transition. The U.S. Military Academy utilizes the Thayer method of instruction, which requires students to study materials before attending class, where they will then be expected to apply that knowledge.
“I think I will be prepared,’’ Hopping said.
Hopping counts his faith as the major preparation component in his life. The family attends the First Baptist Church of Land O’Lakes.
“It sets your moral compass and gives you the instinct whether you should do something or not,’’ Hopping said. “It’s pretty much everything in my life.’’
Faith guided Hopping through the process, which culminated during a 30-minute interview with Bilirakis’ service academy board. They wanted to know Hopping’s purpose and his intentions. Hopping said he’s hoping for a military career of at least 20 years.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for a while,’’ Hopping said. “I’m really excited about it and ready to get started. I’m grateful for the opportunity.’’
How to get into a service academy
Here are some things to consider if you’re considering entering a military service academy.
It’s Competitive — For the Class of 2022, there were more than 42,000 applicants to the five military service academies. Only 4,100 slots were available, putting the acceptance rate at about 9.6%, similar to an Ivy League school.
Build Your Resume — You should have a high-level academic load, along with extracurricular activities, community involvement and athletic pursuits.
Service Commitment — In exchange for tuition, room and board, you are required to serve five years of active duty in the U.S. military.
Heavy Requirements — In addition to SAT/ACT scores, high school transcripts, letters of recommendation and writing samples required by civilian universities, military service academies mandate a congressional nomination, a physical fitness test, a medical exam and personal interviews.
Start Early — Military service academy officials recommend starting the application process no later than the junior year of high school.
By Joey Johnston
Published July 08, 2020