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Aiming high
Class of ’09 boasts five service appointments
Military Signees 4 es
Donald “Gator” Jackson shakes hands with Lt. Col. Chris Sodemann, Air Force Academy admissions liaison officer, as fellow Air Force appointee Taylor Marshall looks on. - photo by Emily Saunders

Five members of the Forsyth County school system’s class of 2009 have received appointments to U.S. Service academies.

The local graduates, four of whom hail from South Forsyth High School, will travel this week to their various destinations, joining a select group of students nationwide.

South’s contingent includes Donald “Gator” Jackson, Taylor Marshall, Christopher Rowley and Eric Wierzbinski. Eric Tise of Forsyth Central High School rounds out the group. Three of the five will attend the Air Force Academy. Four of the five will also play sports.

The military academy admissions process is no easy task.

It takes an act of Congress — or at least one congressman — to nominate a student. To become a cadet, students must also qualify academically, physically and medically.

Once students graduate college, they’re bound to various service obligations.

“These young men and women are the embodiment of the dedication and leadership that makes America the great nation that it is,” said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who nominated Wierzbinski to the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy.

“It has been such a privilege to get to know these students and their families through this process. I wish this year’s class all the best. They truly are our next generation of leaders in this country.”

Donald ‘Gator’ Jackson
U.S. Air Force Academy
Nominated by U.S. Rep. John Linder

For Donald “Gator” Jackson, step one is the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Step two is flight school, which he plans to graduate and become a fighter pilot.

Step three is to one day become an astronaut.

A standout athlete at South Forsyth High School, Jackson said he’s excited to learn how to fly gliders and parachute, as well as compete on the academy’s track team.

“I will be running three seasons of collegiate track for the academy, starting with cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter and finishing with track and field in the spring,” he said.

“I’ll be running and training almost all year. I am looking forward to competing and being trained by a great coaching staff.”

He also is gearing up for the challenging atmosphere of the academy, both physically and academically.

“The academy can be a little intimidating,” he said. “They recruit and attract some of the best talent in America, and I know the competition will be intense.

“I feel I am prepared, but I think everyone is a little nervous their first year.”

Taylor Marshall
U.S. Air Force Academy
Nominated by U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal

Taylor Marshall was in the National Honors Society, Beta Club and the Spanish Honors Society at South Forsyth High School.

He also took part in the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and was a member of the War Eagles’ track and field team.

But it was the culmination of all his work that led to his acceptance into the U.S. Air Force Academy.

His father, Stephen Marshall, said his son will be the first in his family to attend a military academy.

“He earned it all on his own,” he said. “We’re happy. We’re proud of him.”

Marshall said his son is very much into leadership, and wants to pursue aerospace engineering at the Colorado Springs, Colo., school.

Christopher Rowley
U.S. Military Academy
Nominated by U.S. Rep. John Linder

Christopher Rowley had college choices. But while weighing those options against his baseball goals, the South Forsyth High School pitcher received a call from the U.S. Military Academy.

“They offered me a scholarship and they were talking to me about West Point and the difference in a military academy from a normal four-year school,” he said. “The camaraderie between the cadets is like a fraternity like no other.

“It’s the best life decision you could ever make. That, combined with a great baseball tradition up there, sealed the deal for me.”

Rowley began playing baseball at age 3. He played shortstop until his sophomore year in high school, when he turned to pitching. This spring, he helped lead the War Eagles to a state runner-up finish.

Rowley said he’s always wanted to be a helicopter pilot, though he’s unsure how that could factor into his future. He’s considering serving for a decade or so, before flying commercially.

He wasn’t influenced by family, despite both his grandfathers having served in the military.

“It’s basically a life decision that you make,” Rowley said.

Eric Tise
U.S. Air Force Academy
Nominated by U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal

Eric Tise has been interested in flying ever since his father took him up in his private plane.

The 18-year-old will have plenty of chances for flight as he heads to the Air Force Academy.

“My dad has taken me up a couple of times, and that’s when I first got interested,” he said.

Tise was the only Forsyth Central High School graduate, and one of just five in the county, to be accepted at a U.S. service academy this year.

Soccer has been a passion for Tise since he started playing at age 8. But when it came time to his college choice, playing soccer for the Falcons didn’t cross his mind.

“I was contacted [by them],” said Tise, who will join the academy’s varsity soccer program. “I looked more into it and all of the opportunities that come with it, traveling and eventually maybe being able to fly a plane.”

Tise said he’s looking forward to facing the adversity the academy offers.

“I can’t wait to become a better person for all these challenges,” he said.

Eric Wierzbinski
U.S. Merchant Marines Academy
Nominated by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and U.S. Rep. John Linder

Though he was also recruited by the U.S. Naval Academy, Eric Wierzbinski decided to become one of about 275 incoming students at the U.S. Merchant Marines Academy.

A longtime soccer player, Wierzbinski will also play on the academy’s varsity team.

“I’ve always thought it was a fun sport to play,” the recent South Forsyth High School graduate said. “I think I’ll make a lot of good friends, and it will open opportunities for me.”

He expects the toughest part of his commitment likely will be the transition into the academy’s rigorous structure. But the rigor could pay off as he hopes to work in the maritime industry, starting with serving on a merchant ship.

He opted for the academy for the “opportunities, the traveling and all the exciting destinations I get to go to.”

“The curriculum is well suited for me too, the discipline and to serve my country ... and the gratification I’ll receive when I graduate.”

 Email Jennifer Sami at