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Into the Wild Blue Yonder

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By John Herndon

Joshua Yeaste knew what he wanted to do in life before he ever started school.

"I have always wanted to fly since I was a little boy," Yeaste said.

The senior at Anderson County High School moved one step closer to that dream when he accepted an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy during a ceremony Friday at the high school.

"He was 4 years old when he first said that he wanted to fly," Yeaste's mother, Ginger, recalled. "It has just been what he wanted to do."

Yeaste's hard work in the classroom, where he is a candidate for valedictorian of this year's senior class, and exemplary character played a major role in the rare appointment, announced by Congressman Ben Chandler.

"This is a very unusual event, a very significant event," Chandler said during a brief speech at the ceremony. "It is a tremendous honor."

Yeaste will study mechanical engineering at the Air Force Academy, located outside Colorado Springs, Colo. The academy is ranked as one of the top engineering programs in the country and Yeaste will be receiving what is considered the equivalent of an Ivy League education courtesy of the government.

"It is an education valued at $250,000," Chandler said in his remarks.

In return, Yeaste has a five-year commitment to the Air Force for completing his education at the academy. As a pilot, he will have an additional five-year commitment.

Yeaste's father, Ed, admits that at one time, the family had some reservations about his son's career choice of being a combat pilot.

"Initially, we were apprehensive because of what he would be doing, but we have always been very supportive of whatever he has wanted to do."

A fan of military history, Josh Yeaste said the ongoing war in Iraq did not deter his decision to accept the appointment.

"I thought it through," he said. "I think it is all the more reason to go."

Chandler said that while the situation in Iraq has cut into enlistment numbers overall, it has had little effect on the number of applicants to the Air Force Academy, Naval Academy or West Point.

"There is so much distinction in this award," he said.

"Each year, we have about 14 or 15 to the three of them combined. That is out of 700,000 people in my district."

Anderson County Principal Ray Woodyard said he was not sure of the last time an Anderson County student received an appointment to one of the service academies.

Guidance counselor Regina Taylor added that she was researching but had located no appointments in recent years.

Yeaste is one of 1,600 appointments to the class of 2012 out of 9,200 qualified applicants nationwide.

"U.S. News and World Report" has ranked the academic program at the Air Force Academy as the No. 1 baccalaureate program in the west.

The aeronautical and astronautical engineering program was ranked second and the undergraduate engineering program is ranked seventh nationally by the magazine.

Josh received a presidential and engineering scholarship to the University of Kentucky but decided to pursue his dream. Senators Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, as well as Chandler, nominated him for an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

All cadets must be physically fit and most are accomplished athletes. "Sports Illustrated" has rated the Air Force Academy as "The Most Athletic University in the Nation."

At Anderson, Josh Yeaste has been a member of the boys' soccer team, where he was a starting defender and was named academic all-state first team for four years.

He was also an all-district tournament selection in 2006. He will play intramural soccer at the academy.

Josh was also a Governor's Scholar and an Eagle Scout and is active at First Baptist Church.

His family will face over 1,200 miles of separation when Josh heads to Colorado this summer.

"There will be an adjustment for all of us," Ed Yeaste said.

"He was gone away for five weeks for the Governor's Scholar program and that was the longest he has ever been away from home."

But all are convinced he has made the right choice.

"It is what I have always wanted to do," Josh said.