When Rene Sykes envisioned her two daughters going off to college, she didn't imagine them in basic training, getting room inspections and parachuting out of airplanes at half-time for shows across the country. But these are exactly the kind of things the two South Carroll High School grads are doing as seniors at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
"It's been strange," said Sykes, of Mount Airy. "I never thought we'd have one kid going, much less two. I'm proud of them."
Sykes said it was her younger daughter, Sarah, who first showed an interest in the Air Force Academy as a junior at South Carroll High School in 2009.
"We took both our daughters for a summer vacation to Colorado Springs so we could tour the [Air Force] Academy," Sykes said. "While were doing that, my oldest daughter said, 'Boy, I'd like to come here.'"
Rene's oldest daughter, Rachel, had already completed two years at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
"I said nooooo," Sykes joked. "My husband said 'yeeeessss' because college is expensive and the thought of not having to do that for two more years was sweet."
In 2011, Rachel Sykes and her younger sister, Sarah, who had just graduated from South Carroll, started as first-year students at the Air Force Academy. Both are on schedule to graduate in May 2015.
There are five military or service academies, or colleges for training commissioned officers in the armed forces, in the United States: Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, Military Academy (West Point), Coast Guard Academy and Merchant Marine Academy.
Students accepted into the highly competitive, prestigious schools do not pay tuition, but there is a commitment to serve for five years upon graduation.
Sykes said Sarah and Rachel's father, Tom Sykes, is a retired Air Force fighter pilot, although he did not attend the Air Force Academy.
"[Serving in the military] wasn't something that troubled me because my husband had a good career in the Air Force," Sykes said. "What was a help to me in all this was that it was purely their decision – I didn't do any persuading, this wasn't my idea, I didn't yearn for them to be there – this was their decision, they wanted to do this."
Sykes said she worries about her daughters being able to handle all that is expected of them at the Academy.
"It can be pretty stressful for the kids," Sykes said. "I worry about them handling all their duties and studies when it's exam time. You hear stories about some kids not being able to handle the stress. I just hope they are happy, not too stressed, sleeping enough."
For Rene Sykes, even though she and Tom make occasional trips to Colorado to see their daughters, the distance is the most challenging part to having both her children at the Air Force Academy, she said.
She pointed out that hers is just one Carroll County family dealing with the triumphs and challenges of having multiple children attend service academies.
Andy and Judy Mullen, also Mount Airy residents, have seen three of their four children attend the U.S. Naval Academy.
Their oldest, Kathleen, graduated from the Naval Academy in 2014. Deborah will graduate in 2016 and Joseph, who started his plebe year on July 1, will graduate in 2018. The Mullens' fourth child, Michael, is studying business at Virginia Tech and doesn't have an interest in attending the Naval Academy. All four are South Carroll High School graduates.
Andy Mullen graduated from the Naval Academy in 1980 and then served seven years of active duty with the Navy. Judy Mullen said by the time they had kids, her husband was working full time at IBM and Lockheed Martin and serving in the Reserves on a weekend basis.
"I think growing up and hearing stories from their dad about his time in the Navy and his service was a tremendous positive influence," Mullen said. "There's a lot of naval service on both sides of our family. I'm sure that influenced them."
Jennifer Erickson, director of media relations and public affairs for the Naval Academy, said it is common for multiple people from one family to attend the school. They are referred to as "legacy families."
"In this year's plebe class, about 11 percent of midshipmen students are from a Naval Academy legacy family, which is about average for what we see in an incoming class," Erickson said.
Sen. Joseph Getty, of Carroll County, said he believes that a generation of young people was impacted by the 9/11 terror attacks in a way that inspired them to want to serve their country. Getty's two oldest sons attended the Naval Academy. Both are North Carroll High School graduates; Justus Getty graduated from the Naval Academy in 2004 and Nathan Getty graduated in 2008.
"I think 9/11 had a nationwide impact on my children's generation," Getty said. "I think we have a slice of high schoolers and college students who saw America in trouble and as far as career orientation decided they wanted to be part of the solution."
Rene Sykes said that as much as she enjoys watching her daughters overcome challenges and enjoy their time at the Air Force Academy, she'll be happy when they graduate.
"I'll be very happy when I'm sitting at graduation because it'll mean that they made it through, that they accomplished this," Sykes said.