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West Point grads eager to step up and serve

May. 24, 2013 - 04:45PM   |  

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WEST POINT, N.Y. — For as long as he can remember, Mark Castelli wanted to go to the United States Military Academy. His father, Michael Castelli, attended the elite military academy, as did two older brothers.

Once there, however, Mark Castelli, a 22-year-old from Carmel, took a different path on the long, gray line.

“They all flew helicopters and played football,” said Castelli, who will graduate Saturday and is headed to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after officer basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

“I went a different route,” he said. “I went engineers and ran track and cross-country.”

On Saturday, Castelli will graduate from West Point as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Army for five years of active duty, plus another three years in the Reserve.

About 1,000 cadets are expected to receive their diplomas.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is the keynote speaker at the commencement, which comes just days after news broke that a staff sergeant at West Point has been accused of secretly videotaping female cadets. It is the latest in a string of sexual scandals dogging the military, a culture Hagel and President Barack Obama have vowed to clean up.

Sitting in Taylor Hall earlier this week, an imposing gray Gothic structure on campus, four cadets spoke to The Journal News about the traditions and rigors of life at the nation’s oldest military academy, the ideal of public service and their plans.

During graduation week, West Point’s highly regimented schedule of classes, sports and drills gives way to parades, receptions and dinners as alumni and family descend on the campus.

Outside on Wednesday, hundreds of alumni and cadets in immaculately pressed gray uniforms gathered on the sprawling expanse of lawn known as the Plain for a ceremonial wreath laying.

“I wanted to be a part of something more than just myself,” Mark Owens, 22, of Pearl River, N.Y., said of his decision to attend West Point.

After graduation, Owens is headed to Fort Leonard Wood and will later post at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division for three years.

The U.S. left Iraq at the end of 2011 and is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan. But deployment to trouble spots abroad is a likelihood for many of the graduates. Ninety-three West Point graduates have been killed in action since Sept. 11, 2001.

Like his fellow cadets, Owens, a graduate of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., said he is eager to serve as a platoon leader and take on the responsibilities of rank.

“It could easily be Afghanistan or the Middle East,” he said. “Depending on what happens in Asia, we could also see time over there.”

After training to fly Blackhawk helicopters and Cessna aircraft, Cadet Vincent Franchino, 21, of Stony Point, N.Y., will head to Fort Rucker, the Army’s aviation school in Alabama.

Franchino, a graduate of North Rockland High School, hopes to take his skills as a pilot and fly missions for America’s space program. As a pilot, he is required to serve for six years.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I want to become an astronaut.”

Franchino said one of his favorite memories of West Point happened on the night of May 1, 2011, when news broke of Osama Bin Laden’s death and crowds of flag-waving cadets streamed outdoors to celebrate.

“The entire corps was ecstatic,” he said.

Looking back at his time at the Point — from “Beast Barracks,” the grueling summer boot camp for plebes, to managing an Ivy League-course load — Cadet Bryan Teaton said some of his happiest moments were on the handball court.

Before coming to West Point, Teaton, 21, of Nanuet, N.Y., said he knew nothing about team handball, which he described as a fast-moving version of water polo played on land.

This month, West Point finished third in a club national tournament in Reno, Nev.; Teaton required stitches after taking an elbow to the head.

“It’s been humbling,” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade it for any other college experience.”

Teaton, also a graduate of Don Bosco Prep, has been assigned to Fort Drum, N.Y., with the First Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

“I’m more excited than anything,” he said. “This is what we have gone to school for. Now it’s time to see what it’s like in the real Army.”

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