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At military school, Obama's Afghan policy is personal

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
Students line up in formation at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico.
Students line up in formation at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico.
  • CNN's John King travels to the New Mexico Military Institute
  • It's a mix of high school and college students, who must accept military discipline
  • "State of the Union" with John King airs Sunday at 9 a.m. ET

Roswell, New Mexico (CNN) -- Deborah Wright can't remember the exact moment, but her eyes sparkle when asked about her ambition: "I have always wanted to fly planes."

For Jon Huntsman -- son of Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to China and former Utah Republican governor -- the spark came during family vacations to Coronado along the California coast near San Diego.

"Watching the Navy SEALs train all day and just wondering, 'What drives those guys out there?' You know? And it's just, serving your country."

To reach their goal, they spend what amounts to their freshman year of college in military uniforms, mixing a stringent class schedule with mandatory physical drills and other military-style training. And they do this far away from home and family, in a remote high desert town: Roswell, New Mexico, better known to most Americans for its UFO museum than as the home of the New Mexico Military Institute.

The sprawling campus has a mix of high school and college students, all required to wear uniforms and accept military-style discipline. In exchange, they get what the school bills as a top-notch education and a proven track record of graduates who move on to leadership roles in the military and civilian sectors.

"My entire faculty -- everyone has a master's degree, and more than half have a doctorate degree," says Maj. Gen. Jerry W. Grizzle, the NMMI superintendent. "And they're teaching ninth-graders as well as teaching freshmen and sophomores in college. And so the quality and value of that education is what people seek, and they accept the fact that we do that in a military platform."

Just shy of 20 percent are here as a stepping-stone to active-duty military service: Some are commissioned into the Army from the institute's ROTC program; others, like Wright and Huntsman, are here for a yearlong curriculum designed to help them get into the country's military academies.

So as President Obama outlined his new Afghanistan strategy this week, many on the NMMI campus knew his plan could eventually involve them, even though they are not yet in the active military, and even though the odds of some of them ending up near combat are fairly low.

Asked if the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan influenced her decision to pursue a military education and career, 18-year-old Chantel Ferguson of Washington state said, "It didn't factor in for me at all."

Ferguson was sent to the New Mexico Military Institute by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

"I'm more of an environmental person, and the Coast Guard responds to environmental security, and so that is one of the main reasons why I joined, because I want to help," she said.

Video: New Mexico's school of service

"No matter what I think, I got to do what he says," said Mickel McGann, an 18-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who was sent here by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy to boost his academics a bit before it will admit him. "If he says, 'jump,' you just say, 'how high?' "

In conversations with five "cadet preps" -- students here for a year preparing for a military academy -- all said they watched the president's speech and listened closely. None said their desire to attend a military academy and enter the armed forces was diminished in any way by the stark reality that they could end up a part of the ongoing missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. But all five acknowledged some friends or family members had questioned their judgment.

"I go home and get questioned all the time," said Stephen Reardon of Dracut, Massachusetts, who could end up in a support role for the wartime missions if he gets his wish and leaves the Air Force Academy on the pilot track. " 'Why do you do it? Why would you do it?' I know if I don't go, someone else is going to have to go in my place. And it would just make me feel better if I am there and knowing that I am leading people."

On the one hand, the risks for the cadet preps are perhaps not as great: They would have several years of school ahead at the academies, and Obama outlined a goal of beginning to draw down U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan in July 2011.

Huntsman said those in the ROTC program here are at greater immediate risk.

This school has an early commission program for the Army, and so lots of guys will probably be in the mix for those 30,000 troops.
--Jon Huntsman, New Mexico Military Institute student

"This school has an early commission program for the Army, and so lots of guys will probably be in the mix for those 30,000 troops," he said.

But he also was skeptical that Obama's timeline will be met -- and his is an interesting perspective.

"I don't think a timeline really means anything," said Huntsman, 19.

"When I heard the date, well, I know we are not going to be out of there in 2011. I think they just kind of threw a date out there to kind of give the American people a promise, you know, we're going to try and get out of this mess. ... A lot of men have already died in the same country, why end now? We've got to finish it. Finish what we started."

Huntsman, plenty old enough to remember his father's campaigns -- and his campaigning for other Republicans -- says that despite his skepticism about the timeline, Obama deserves credit for settling on a policy full of political risks.

"It's risky, but for the better of the country -- not for the better of his party."

Huntsman has an appointment to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, as long as he has a strong academic year at NMMI. He hopes to be accepted to the Navy Special Warfare program and says that if the war drags on, he would he happy to serve in combat.

"If you're in the special forces, you train, you do train to be in those parts of the world in times of war. ... I want to be there, right beside them."

Wright's path isn't so clear. She came here on her own after not making the cut for the Air Force Academy, hoping a strong academic year and the commitment to the military lifestyle and training will win her another look.

Like the other cadet preps, she paid close attention to the Afghanistan announcement. While skeptical that it can be kept, she has a different take than Huntsman on the July 2011 timeline.

"I think putting a date on it sort of invokes a sense of urgency," said Wright, 18, of Richland, Washington. "It almost instills hope, like eventually there is a date ... we will eventually get out from over there -- whether it is on that specific date or around there."