It all started with the History Channel, Zach Thompson says.
"I was watching a show about West Point and was absolutely fascinated with the place," says Zach, who graduates Tuesday from Butler High School. "My parents say I was hooked, from that point on."
Now, after about six years of hard work - and some help from influential friends - Zach gets his wish.
On June 25, he heads for West Point, N.Y., to attend the U.S. Military Academy.
"This is what I wanted - a chance to get a great education and then give something back to my country," he says.
Zach is a throwback. At a time when many high school graduates plot their college selections with the idea of landing a big-bucks job after four years, Zach Thompson would settle for spending a few years with an Army artillery unit after graduation in 2015. He says he is looking forward to "trying to help make the country a little better."
His long-term future?
"After that, I'll have five years of active duty and three years in the reserves," he says.
The road from the History Channel program to West Point contained some potholes.
Through ninth and 10th grades, he worked hard to keep his grades in the "A" and "B" levels. He joined Butler's Junior ROTC program and participated in other activities. His ROTC leaders told him good grades weren't enough to get into West Point - he'd need a record of community and school involvement.
At the middle of his junior year, he applied for admission and secured the recommendation of his Junior ROTC commander at Butler - Lt. Col. Richard Laughlin, himself a West Point grad.
Typically, students who are headed to West Point are accepted for a summer program at the academy between their junior and senior years. Zach applied, and was turned down.
"That was a slap in the face, a dose of reality," he says. "Until then, everything had gone my way."
While Zach was trying to fine-tune a resume that would land him an appointment, he was impressing those around him. He became battalion commander of Butler's JROTC program, which won a number of awards during the past year. The unit had a hand in more than a half-dozen community service events. His GPA reached 4.66.
"He was a great leader at our school - very focused," says Will Leach, Butler's principal. "He took over the JROTC program as its captain, and he kept them heavily involved in the community."
Laughlin says Zach "became a positive example to the younger students. He showed true leadership."
U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick nominated Zach last fall to West Point. But Zach got a little insurance, applying to Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel.
Then he waited... and worried.
"There were days when I thought I wouldn't get in," he says. "I told myself that I'd be going to VMI or The Citadel."
One day in early March, Zach learned he had received a full scholarship to VMI. Later that afternoon, he found a message on his cellphone from Myrick.
He was going to West Point.
"Zach heard that message while he was walking in our (JROTC) classroom," Laughlin recalls. "He was so excited! He kept playing the message for all of us."
Zach says he has few worries as he prepares for this new and very different chapter in his life. Perhaps the toughest part is leaving his 1966 Mercury Monterey - a gift from his grandfather, Ted Kiker, who originally owned it.
"I love that car," says Zach, who enjoys attending classic car shows with his father, Jeff, and his grandfather. "It'll really be tough to leave that behind."
Laughlin says he has warned Zach that his early introduction to West Point life will be tough. "Most of those who drop out in the freshman year do so in the first two weeks," Laughlin says.
Zach knows all that, and says he wants to make his family, his school and his community proud of him.
"Sometimes I wonder why they took me," he says. "There's no strong military background in my family. My dad owns a trucking company, and my mom is a Realtor. Why would they accept me?"
Leach, his principal, knows why.
"He's a natural leader," Leach says.