Students earn service academy nominations

High-achieving Montezuma County teens aim for military careers

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They've burnt the midnight oil studying, awakened early to run and lift weights, and volunteered free time to various causes. The hard work is done. Now comes the waiting game.

Last month, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, nominated 19 young people from Colorado's 3rd Congressional District for admission to U.S. Service Academies. Three were from Montezuma County: two from Cortez and one out of Mancos.

They won't receive word from the academies until March or April.

Spokesman Josh Green said Tipton looks for "well-rounded individuals" whose skills are suited to a military academy setting - academic rigor, leadership among peers and community service are assets. Deciding on finalists was a difficult task, he added.


It's a fitting conclusion - an appropriate bookend - that Willburn completes his senior year at Mancos High School waiting to hear from the academies. His military ambitions were kindled shortly after he entered as a freshman.

Willburn says he didn't necessarily draw inspiration from family roots. Though both grandfathers were drafted into the Army, they "didn't make lifelong careers out of it." In his mind, service just sounded like a compatible fit.

"Ever since I learned about the academies, I've been working toward that goal," he said.

Achieving the goal is no easy feat; the stepping stones needed to be a credible candidate for cadet demand time and gumption. As a student, it means solid scores on the ACT, a consistently high grade point average and the ability to craft a good essay.

"You can't just sit around and get Cs in your classes," Willburn said.

It means staying physically healthy enough to pass the fitness assessment. Tests include timed sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups; a distance run, sprints and a basketball throw akin to a shot put heave. There's also a medical exam that gauges vision and hearing.

Willburn runs high school cross-country and track, and volunteers for the Mancos Fire Protection District. This year he is serving as senior class representative on student council and National Honor Society president. If that weren't enough, Willburn is taking calculus and composition courses at Fort Lewis College.

"It's been more work than I thought when I started out. It taught me time management," he said.

Willburn is applying to two academies: Air Force in Colorado Springs and Navy in Annapolis, Md.

A prerequisite for Air Force is Civil Air Patrol. After classroom training and 11 hours of supervised flight time, Willburn flew solo at the National Flight Academy in Shawnee, Okla. last year.

Last week, Willburn also received a letter of recommendation to the Army academy in West Point, N.Y. from Sen. Mark Udall.

His parents are Joe and Tara Willburn.


Like Willburn, Esquibel's high school days are drawing to a close. As for a future in the military, the M-CHS senior is trying to keep his options open.

After being nominated by Tipton for the Army academy. Esquibel received an email from Sen. Michael Bennet, who added Navy and Air Force to the list.

Of the three, Esquibel would most like to end up in Annapolis, where his older brother Jordant is already a Navy cadet. But he'd be happy anywhere.

"I want to be an officer in the military one way or another," he said. I want to serve my country and be a leader," he said.

To boost his chances, Esquibel has made school grades a priority. He also is a captain on M-CHS' soccer team and is vice president of student government.

"(The academies) like to see leadership and dedication, in whatever it is you do. That's what I've been trying to show," he said.

His parents are Anthony Esquibel and Rebecca Saunders.


Rainer finds himself in a different boat. He graduated from M-CHS in 2012 and matriculated this fall at Colorado School of Mines, where he studies petroleum engineering.

If Rainer gets accepted to the Air Force Academy, he won't need to move too far, but will need to adjust his field of study. Since Air Force doesn't offer petroleum engineering, he considers mechanical engineering a logical choice. Growing up, Rainer never would have placed himself in the world of left-brained academics.

"I honestly used to be a daydreamer, off in another land. Then something happened in high school and numbers seemed to make sense," he said.

At M-CHS, Rainer was captain of the basketball team for two years and his childhood dream was to play professionally. Eventually, he realized it wasn't a viable option. The realization led him to consider military service.

"I was naive enough as a sophomore to not know of the academies. I did some research and felt it was the place I could be most successful," he said. "It's a structured, team environment that fit my character."

Rainer's extra-curricular commitments in high school were centered around hoops, too. He volunteered as a coach/general manager for a 12-year-old boys team, and was a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

This fall he walked-on to the university's basketball team and is enrolled in Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps - ROTC.

At 6-foot-3, Rainer is just barely eligible, height-wise, for pilot's training. But his plans lie elsewhere; he'd rather join the ground forces.

"I just made (the height limit) standing. From sitting position, I was borderline," he said. "But I'd hate to take a pilot's slot away from somebody passionate about it. I've never had a strong drive to fly."

Rainer was elated to get Tipton's phone call.

"My sense of pride and fulfillment was over the top, that's for sure," Rainer said.

Rainer will be the first in his family to serve in the military, if accepted.

His parents are Bill Rainer and Kim Fairley.