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South Dakota native enjoying time at US Military Academy

By DAN CRISLERJanuary 21, 2019

WATERTOWN, S.D. (AP) — Few can withstand the rigors of the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

With its emphasis on academics and conduct expected of the academy’s future military officers, just getting into the nation’s academy is difficult enough let alone staying.

In short, it’s not for the typical college-aged student.

Fortunately, Watertown’s Zachariah Markel appears to be doing just fine.

After speaking to Immaculate Conception School students and answering questions about his experience on Friday, Jan. 4, Markel, 20, spent time speaking with the Watertown Public Opinion before flying back to start the spring semester last week.

Having just begun the second half of his second year, or as West Point cadets and alumni call it, his Yuk year, the 2017 Watertown High School and 2013 IC School graduate is establishing himself in West Point’s culture after spending his first year learning what is expected of him and his fellow cadets at the prestigious Army academy.

“As a Plebe, or freshman, it was kind of learning the ropes of like how West Point is and just sticking to my own memo,” Markel said. “After that, it was just making sure I was doing well in my classes.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean his first year wasn’t enjoyable. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Each December, thousands of cadets from both the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy come to cheer on their respective football teams in the Army-Navy Game, perhaps the nation’s most rivalry football game.

With each military academy located slightly over two hours away from the game’s host sight in Philadelphia, the game builds camaraderie among the cadets no matter who they’re rooting for. In the week leading up to the game, some cadets swap academies leading to pranks being pulled.

“Cadets are kind of strange people but also very nice,” Markel said. “You make friendships that last for a long time despite whatever you may go through. I have some friends I’m really close with. We’re from all parts of the country but we all have similar interests. We’d do anything for each other.”

For as much as West Point expects from its cadets, Markel said the academy is willing to go to great lengths to help them.

“It can be a struggle, but if you want to stay, you’ll be there to stay,” he said. “The teachers are really helpful. Most of them are willing to make time to help give you additional instruction and make sure you succeed.”

Markel also has gotten to brush shoulders with some distinguished military officers, including a three-star general who helps run West Point.

“They’re awesome people and really partake with the cadets,” he said.

If there’s one aspect of the military lifestyle Markel hopes he rarely, if ever, encounters, it would be to find himself in a situation where he has to consume meals ready-to-eat.

Designed to give military members a full meal without fear of spoiling, the 1,200-calorie meals have drawn a negative reputation due to their taste.

While Markel said some MREs are delicious, others look disgusting.

“Creamy spinach sounds good on paper. But when you open it and let it finish heating, it smells really gross,” Markel said. “You just can’t stick it your mouth because, on its own, the smell is just so bad ... It doesn’t look good. It looks kind of like a dog food meat coming out of a can situation.

“But when you’re hungry and just trying to get energy to get through the day, you tend to just eat it and not think about it.”

Now that he’s in the latter half of his second year, Markel’s future after graduation is starting to take on a clearer focus. Needing to serve at least a five-year military commitment upon graduation, cadets can list preferences for what military career field they would like to do. Markel said the chances of cadets landing one of their top preferences is tied directly to how they perform in school.

“Most of it is based on your class rank,” he said.

In an ideal world, Markel said he would to work in the cybersecurity sector upon graduation.

“If I don’t get that, I really want to go Signal. They do a lot of communication work. I’m still very interested in that,” he said. “For my third top choice, I really want to do air defense artillery. I would get to work with technology as well as the combat arms people in that branch.”

Markel said he’s not too concerned on what military base he may ultimately be stationed at.

“For my top two, I really would like to stationed up in Alaska or Germany. Besides that, I really don’t have a preference,” he said. “That’s all willing to change.”

For now, Markel is focused on keeping his nose to the grindstone and enjoying his West Point experience.

“It’s a fun experience. Once I got past some of the grind and struggles, I honestly have come to love the place,” he said.

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Information from: Watertown Public Opinion, http://www.thepublicopinion.com

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