More than most students milling about the hallway at the Davis Conference Center at MacDill Air Force Base, Caleb Allen knows the cost of war.
His father, retired Marine Cpl. Mike Jernigan, was blinded when his Humvee hit an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Iraq in 2004.
But that didn't stop Allen, 16, from joining about 200 other young men and women at the annual Academy Day held today at MacDill Air Force Base for those considering entering one of the five service academies.
Allen has no doubts about which academy he wants to attend.
His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were Marines.
"I want to go into the Naval Academy and become a Marine officer," said Allen, a junior at Berkeley Preparatory School. "I want to serve my country."
As Allen talks, Jernigan smiles with pride.
As a father who knows all too well the sacrifices troops make, he says his son is determined.
"It's in his soul," Jernigan says. "He will be a fourth-generation Marine."
Academy Day is a college fair for future military leaders, and competition is fierce.
"This gets people in the loop," said Rep. Kathy Castor, who convened this Academy Day – her sixth.
In addition to offering "one-stop-shopping" for students and their parents to learn about entry requirements and expectations, Castor said the event offers a chance to get face-time with her, her advisory team and academy representatives.
Anyone wishing to enter an academy must jump over two hurdles. They have to gain admission, and they must be recommended either by their local representative or their senator. There also is a vice presidential nomination open to anyone, and a presidential nomination open only to children of those who served in the military.
The application cycle usually begins in the junior year of high school, but a candidate can express interest much earlier with academy-affiliated sports camps.
Having excellent grades isn't enough.
At West Point, 87 percent of entering students have earned a varsity sports letter, and among those, 75 percent were team captains, according to Capt. Charles H. Cook, the Army's military academy liaison officer for Castor's congressional district.
Air Force Col. Ted Mathews Jr., vice wing commander of the 927th Air Refueling Wing at MacDill, is one of Castor's advisers. Matthews said he looks for leadership qualities when assessing candidates.
"Be a leader on your sports team, be a leader on your club, or start one," he said.
Students who enter the service, either through an academy or by enlisting, face danger — something highlighted by the presence at today's Academy Day of Jernigan and his guide dog, Brittani, who helps him navigate.
"As a parent, I tend to internalize that danger more than the child," said David Henry, 52, whose son hopes to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I want to fly," said Tampa Jesuit High School student Michael Henry, 17, when asked about the risk that comes with service.
For more information about applying for a service academy, go to http://castor.house.gov/constituentservices/serviceacademynominations.htm