Madison Consolidated High School Class of 2013 graduates, Hayden McMahon, left, and Tate Turner, competed through high school. The friendly competition continues. Both men recently graduated from millitary academies - McMahon from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Turner from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
Madison Consolidated High School Class of 2013 graduates, Hayden McMahon, left, and Tate Turner, competed through high school. The friendly competition continues. Both men recently graduated from millitary academies - McMahon from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Turner from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. (Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
At a very early age, Hayden McMahon knew his future was in the military.

About fifth or sixth grade, “I started doing well in school, and school became a priority,” he said.

He was able to combine school and the military when he was accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, after graduating from Madison Consolidated High School in 2013.

Last month, he graduated as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, with a degree in management and systems engineering.

Back in junior high school, McMahon said, he began researching West Point to determine what was required of a student applying there.

“I tailored everything in high school to make it easy for me to get in,” he said. “In the application process, they want to see a lot of leadership positions. ... I was in Boy Scouts, and tried to be the president of every club I was in or captain of any team I was on. Volunteer opportunities – I tried to take advantage of all of those, and in any case I could, try to be the leader. Much to other people’s chagrin, I’m sure.”

This put him in a competition of sorts with his classmate Tate Turner, who graduated last month from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

While Turner didn’t have his future mapped out quite to the detail McMahon had, they often found themselves vying for the same leadership positions at MCHS.

“It was pretty much Tate and I together,” McMahon recalled. “If Tate wasn’t in charge, I was in charge.”

Unlike McMahon, however, Turner didn’t start thinking about college and his future until his junior year.

“My dad is retired Navy, and he suggested the Air Force Academy,” he recalled. He started going through the application process, a process that is intentionally grueling to weed out those applicants who are not as committed as they need to be to succeed.

But after going to Academy Day, which was hosted by then-U.S. Rep. Todd Young, Turner became interested in the Navy, despite his father’s advice.

Already having applied to the Air Force Academy, he spent a few extra hours to pull together an application for the Naval Academy.

His father, Mike, who is an industrial technology teacher at MCHS, “didn’t want me to go into the Navy, even though he was a Navy man himself.”

But the more research he did, he found the Navy had far more diverse opportunities than the Air Force, which, by the way, is “full of nerds,” he joked.

“You can go to the surface warfare community and be driving ships. You can go fly planes. You can be a ground-pounding Marine, if you want.”

Turner earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, including an astroengineering track, or engineering for space programs.

On Monday, the two young men reunited to discuss their experiences at two of the top schools in the United States.

Being at West Point, McMahon said, “was kind of like hugging a cactus. It was tough,” McMahon said. “School wise, I didn’t think it was the most challenging ... granted, my major was a little bit easier than Tate’s, which is like rocket science. ...

“Everyone hears about the first year being tough, and it was. It’s not so much hazing, but you’re doing a lot of stuff you don’t want to do – taking out the trash, cleaning – and it puts a big demand on your schedule,” McMahon said. “You have to have your door open from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Your bed has to be made and everything has to be clean. You have class from 7:30 to 4 every day, then at 4 you have to do your athletics until 6:30. At 6:30 you have dinner, and then you do homework until about 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s like that every single day. It drains you.”

Weekends are also filled with training, “ruck marches” – fast marches with 60-pound packs – and other activities, he said.

Basically, the grueling schedule is meant to break students down and build them back up, he said.

“I notice the difference in myself and everyone kind of says that. It changes you quite a bit,” McMahon said. You learn to take orders, but “toward the end, you learn how to give orders.”

There were plenty of life lessons along the way. “I learned more from leaders that I didn’t like than the ones I did,” and was able to determine the leadership tactics that work best for him.

Turner said he’s noticed changes in himself, as well. “After my first year at the academy, I was way more disciplined than in high school,” he said.

Next to nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering is the toughest major at Annapolis, Turner said.

Though he felt MCHS had prepared him well for college, overall, “I went into a major I wasn’t prepared for,” Turner admitted. “It was a very difficult major. But I was definitely interested in engineering, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

He found he is particularly interested in project management, he said.

“That’s the side I focused on. I really enjoyed being able to manage a project and see all the different facets of it, without having to do all the science,” he said, with a grin.

For Turner, the science “was definitely a struggle. It was the toughest thing I did at the academy. Make me run however far you want, make me jump however high, I’ll do that to the best of my ability. I won’t mind doing that. Put an aerospace book in front of me and tell me to do 20 problems. ...”

But the hard work was worth it, Turner said. “I did a lot of maturing, a lot of growing up and learning what was going on in the world ... really learning who I was and what my place was. I found out a lot of things about myself that I didn’t like and I needed to fix. That was probably one of the hardest parts of the academy.”

“I totally agree,” McMahon said.

“What the academies do best is two things: They get you the friends (and future contacts) and really help you learn who you are and who you want to be. Some people realize they don’t want to be there, that they’re not leaders.”

For those people, at the end of sophomore year, they are given the chance to opt out.

Those who stay commit to completing the next two years of school, and commit to an additional seven years in the service.

Despite the instability in the world today, both Turner and McMahon said they are ready to serve.

“We get tons of briefs on what’s going on,” including secret and top secret information, Turner said. “With respect to what’s going on in China or Russia and the Middle East, yeah, something could happen. But our job right now is just to prepare to lead our sailors and marines and soldiers into harm’s way, to be the best at our jobs that we can be.”

“Thankfully, politics doesn’t really plan a part,” McMahon added. “Our role is just operational, to make sure whatever conflict gets worked out. It doesn’t matter who the leader is or what’s going on. That’s what you do.”

Turner agreed. “There’s always a certain aspect of critical thinking – is what we’re doing morally right? Then again, I trust my leaders. I’ve worked with them intimately, and I know who they are as people, and I can trust them. That’s what we really strive for – unit cohesion, so you are able to operate at the highest efficiency and the highest potency ... to be able to go out and do our jobs better than anyone else in the world.”

So, what’s next?

McMahon leaves July 20 for officers basic training. “I’m actually staying there a little bit longer and going to rigger school, because I’m going to Fort Bragg, North Carolina,” in February, where he will be stationed with the 82nd Airborne.

“They jump out of planes. ... That’s by far the best thing I did at West Point,” he said, adding he’s parachuted five times so far. “My platoon will be in charge of packing and moving around [parachutes], basically. It’s cool. I’ll get to jump a lot.”

“I’ll be flying the plane,” Turner said, though that will be a few years down the road. “I’m going to be staying in Annapolis for temporary duty until September. At that point, I’ll go down to Pensacola [Florida] and start flight training. It’s a lot of studying, you need to know everything about your aircraft. It’s intense.”

As to whether he will fly jets, transport planes or helicopters, Turner said he won’t know until he’s done with flight school.

“I have no idea what I want to do, because each community is very different,” Turner said. “There are pluses and minuses to each one, and you have to figure out which one you fit into.”

He will be in flight training for two-and-a-half to three years, he said, adding that this will also increase his commitment from seven to 10 years after he completes his training. “It’s a bit of a longer commitment, but [afterward] you have a very desirable trade” in the civilian world.

The best part is, neither McMahon nor Turner have any student-loan debt. Their college education will be repaid by their service.

For students who want to follow the same career path, “Start the process early,” McMahon advised. “The more preparation you have going into it, the more confident you can be about it.”

“Luck favors the prepared,” Turner agreed. But, he said it’s also important to “focus on your relationships and building relationships. You’re going to have your peers, your subordinates and your superiors. Know how to build positive relations, because in my opinion, that’s the foundation of our military and why it works so well. It’s the people.

“Knowing how to manage and keep those relationships is going to be huge,” he said.