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New patriotic mood boosts military college enrollment

TODAY when Andrew Mueller, a stout, sandy-haired cadet here at the United States Air Force Academy, goes home to Brown Deer, Wis., he finds reverence, not ridicule. ``I can go anywhere in my uniform and feel comfortable,'' says the senior, in his crisp blue cadet attire. ``The kids I went to school with say, `Wow, you've really got it kind of good.' ''

A decade ago, donning a military uniform on a college campus or attending one of the US service academies was nearly an act of heresy.

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That a new mood exists about the military is by now perhaps clear. US Army enlistments are up. Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs are thriving. Sales of American flags have been high. On TV, the heroic ``Call to Glory'' has replaced the irreverent ``M*A*S*H.''

In lockstep with this rebirth of patriotism, the nation's military academies are experiencing more interest from college-seekers than at any time in recent history.

The surge comes at a time, moreover, when the pool of 18-year-olds to choose from is shrinking, and many schools are scrambling just to fill classrooms.

``The backlash to the Vietnam war is behind us,'' says Col. Thomas Wilkinson, the Air Force Academy registrar and director of admissions. ``There is definitely more interest in the academies.''

Enrollments at all three service schools -- the US Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and Air Force Academy -- remain nearly constant, with targets set by Congress. But the number of men and women applying for admission (women were first admitted in 1976) has roared upward in recent years.

Here at the Air Force campus, a pine-studded expanse folded against the rumpled spine of the Rockies, admission applications have jumped from 9,600 in 1980 to more than 12,000 in each of the last three years -- those vying for about 1,500 entering positions. Requests for applications hit a record high last year of 41,000.

At the Naval Academy, the ranks of admission-seekers have grown by about 1,000 annually for the past three years. West Point has seen a 45 percent jump in applications since 1979.

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Patriotism is considered part, but not all, of the academies' newfound allure. Economics is contributing, too. Harvard University now costs almost $12,000 a year to attend. Public four-year colleges are almost half that. At the academies, tuition, room, and board are not only free, but students also receive a $480-a-month salary -- an estimated $150,000 (taxpayer-paid) value over four years.

True, there are costs. Cadets and midshipmen buy their own uniforms and books. There's also the small matter of discipline (``When you come here, you're in the military now,'' says one admissions officer here). For freshmen Air Force ``doolies'' that means, among other things, walking at shoulder-board-straight attention, including cutting square corners when striding between classes outside. Everyone marches into lunch in formation, and most of the summer is spent in some military-related activity.

Then, too, there's the service commitment after college, a minimum of five years, and seven for those going into flight training. But graduates come out officers, and, in an uncertain job market, that's another inducement for many of today's practical-minded youths. ``You can major in history or political science and have five years of guaranteed employment afterwards,'' contends Bill Flight, chief of recruiting at the Naval Academy.

The academic reputations of the academies, admissions officers often point out, also lure their share of students, but so does each have its own unusual draw. For Cadet 1st Class Mueller it wasn't a desire to flag-wave, but to fly. One brief visit to the campus here, anchored by the chapel and its piercing spire, within a short distance from Pikes Peak, convinced him of that.

``I didn't know anything about the military, really,'' he says. ``I came out here and decided I wanted to fly planes.''

Still, patriotism undergirds the decisions of many those entering service schools today. In a letter to the Navy, one applicant wrote unabashedly: ``My long-range goals are to serve my country.''

Five years ago Michael Wells, then a student in Reading, Pa., was anguishing over the choice of colleges. ``It's kind of hard to say as a senior in high school that you're patriotic,'' says Mr. Wells, who will graduate this year from the Air Force Academy and whose father was a career officer. ``But I really thought it would be neat to serve my country.''

Such feelings, though, have not been harbored for long. In 1968, for instance, West Point didn't meet its target of 1,250 qualified freshmen. The Air Force Academy met its quota -- but the search was strenuous. ``It wasn't cool to be patriotic or want to serve,'' says Colonel Wilkinson.

Today's entering classes never experienced the war in the streets or through a camera lens, encountering it instead in books. ``We studied about Kent State once, but that was about all,'' Cadet Mueller recalls from high school.

For the academies, the bounty of applicants means that they can be all the more selective in winnowing out the ``best and brightest.'' Air Force, in fact, raised the qualifying scores on entrance exams for this year's freshman class for the first time in 21 years.

At least 83 percent of the cadets entering West Point during the last two years had graduated in the top one-fifth of their high school classes. But at the Naval Academy, the enlarged applicant pool has not yet yielded much ``increase in quality,'' according to recruiter Flight.

Getting into a military academy is already a difficult task. In addition to meeting high academic and physical standards, candidates are expected to exhibit almost an Athenian interest in athletics and other extracurricular activities (80 percent of the Air Force Academy's current freshman class earned varsity letters in sports in high school; 80 percent were also National Merit Scholars).

With few exceptions, all applicants also have to receive a nomination from a member of Congress. Yet, given the stiff competition, less than one-fourth of the roughly 8,000 people who received congressional nominations to the Air Force Academy last year ended up being offered one of the entering freshman positions.

Despite the mounting interest in the academies, recruiters aren't resting on their epaulets. All three schools are beefing up or refining their marketing efforts. One statistic underscores their concern: Between now and 1994 there are expected to be almost 25 percent fewer college-age youth from which to recruit. ``We're covering our bets now,'' says Charles Pope, an admissions officer at West Point.

Still, when those starch-collared recruiters do make it around to schools, they will find a more cordial reception than before. Should they happen to show up at the junior high school in Stillwater, Minn., in fact, they'll probably run into Bradley Hovland. He's a ninth-grader who has already decided on his college: the Naval Academy.

``I think it would give me a good education, and I want to be a pilot [you can go directly into flight school from Annapolis],'' says the teen-ager, who has already visited the Maryland academy once and will return again in February. He pauses briefly, then adds:

``And I'd just like to help protect our country.''

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