HARTSELLE — It was a rainy afternoon last month when Hartselle High School senior Matthew Watson stepped inside his home and saw his mother pointing at the kitchen island with an excited expression on her face.
Lying on the counter was a U.S. Military Academy acceptance letter — a symbol of Watson’s childhood dream.
The 17-year-old track, wrestling and cross-country athlete, wearing vintage eyeglasses and a camouflage backpack Thursday afternoon, was humble about receiving a full scholarship to the prestigious West Point, N.Y., school, which overlooks the Hudson River about 50 miles outside of New York City.
“My mom was probably more excited about it than I was,” he said. “It felt like all of my dreams were coming true, and everything I have been striving for the last few years of my life — I was holding in my hands.”
At the beginning of his senior year, Watson began the long application process, which requires a resume, three lengthy essays and several letters of recommendation.
Watson faced his biggest test during Christmas break in December when he interviewed at the lodge at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville. Eight ex-military officers took notes as they quizzed Watson about why he wanted to attend the academy.
The 30-minute interview earned Watson three congressional nominations to the military school by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa; U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville; and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile.
Though he applied to other colleges as a backup, Watson’s heart was set on West Point since he learned his uncle, a Tuscaloosa physician, graduated from the academy in 1971.
Watson, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, has a family history of military service. Both grandfathers served in World War II, Vietnam and Korea.
Watson, who sports a military-style haircut, will join up to 1,000 cadets in July, where he will live in the barracks, train rigorously each morning and eat meals in the mess hall.
Hartselle High teacher Erica Griffin taught Watson, who is president of his senior class, in her advanced-placement language course last year.
“With Matt, I always knew he was one of those kids I didn’t want to mess up,” she said. “When he walked into my door the first time, I knew he was ready for the world. He has a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong and has this ability to be an analytical thinker.”
Adjusting to the stringent physical and academic requirements at West Point won’t be difficult for Watson, former president of Hartselle High’s Latin club and a member of the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta math club.
Watson recently created a raised garden at F.E. Burleson Elementary to teach children about food cultivation as part of his final project to become an Eagle Scout. He runs several miles and does push-ups and sit-ups each day to prepare for basic training this summer.
“The military is not just another career field people choose,” he said. “You don’t just fall into it — it’s something you actively pursue.”
Lucy Berry can be reached at 256-340-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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