Philip Strunk's love affair with the skies began as a child, when his father brought the family to Chicago’s Air & Water Show, where Philip could watch his beloved Thunderbirds.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise the United States Air Force Academy is the next destination for the young man from Evanston, who has earned accolades all the way to Capitol Hill. After applying to elected officials for a nomination to attend one of the nation's service academies, he was reccommended for three different service academies by Illinois’s U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
“Only 20 people in the state who apply get the nomination from the Senator,” he notes. “It was pretty cool being one of those 20.”
His dream came true recently – if one year deferred – when he was accepted into the United States Air Force.
Now as he waits to enroll at the Air Force Academy, Strunk is biding his time at the Greystone School at Schreiner University, situated in Kerrville, TX, about an hour north of San Antonio. The 42 Greystone students mix in with the general Schreiner student body, but adhere to a different set of rules with a stricter dress code and separate living arrangements, all in preparation for the military life.
Strunk wound up at Greystone because his application to the Air Force last year was denied by officials in Colorado Springs.
“Last year it was a big disappointment not getting into the Air Force Academy,” said his mother, Pam, a school nurse. “But he is such a better candidate now because of what he is going through, and Plan B is where character is built.”
But his perseverance paid off and one year he received his acceptance.
The fact that Strunk was named his class president speaks volumes as to what other people think of his abilities. There are many early mornings as part of his routine--something he was already familiar with considering his athletic prowess at ETHS included soccer, volleyball and diving, a sport that required many starts before dawn.
“Waking up at 5:30 is probably easier for me than other kids because I had to wake up two or three times a week at 5:30 for diving practice," he said. "Sports disciplined me and made me work really hard. My first semester at Greystone I got a 4.0 (GPA) because of my work ethic. If I didn’t play sports, I wouldn’t have had that work ethic.”
Although he works hard in school, Strunk says living in Texas means a lifestyle change from Evanston to a more relaxed environment.
“It’s a lot slower,” he points out. “Out in the country, people aren’t in such a big hurry. One thing I don’t miss about here is all the crazy driving. You have time to slow down and relax in Texas and everybody is not in such a rush to get places.”
What Strunk is not getting at Greystone is the traditional college atmosphere. Most of the friends he had at ETHS are now in their second semester of an environment where shenanigans have been known to occur.
Strunk admits a little bit of yearning for that kind of life, but not too much. “I never drank in high school,” he said. “It makes me glad I am not there because while they are out partying and drinking, they are not getting straight As,” he said. “At the same time, when they get out of college, what are they going to do? Most likely they will not get a job right out of college. After the academy, I have a job and I am getting paid well.”
When he gets to the Air Force, he hopes to become a combat rescue officer. His mother does not cringe when she hears him say that and supports the idea despite the obvious dangers. “If that is what he wants to do I know he will be successful at it because it is where his heart is,” she said. “It doesn’t keep me up at night. I pray for his safety and I know he will be successful at rescuing somebody. They will be lucky to have him come in.”
For someone who grew up as the United States fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Strunk saw the horrors of combat on TV, but says he is not afraid and draws on a religious perspective. “I have God looking over me. If something happens, then it happens. There is nothing I can do about it but I am going to try and do the best of my ability to do my job. I know God is going to be there with me.”
Faith is very important to Strunk. The family attends a non-denominational church in Northfield and while in Texas, he goes to weekly services and bible study.
Growing up in Evanston Strunk went to Chute Middle School and developed interests in sports, construction and, of course, the skies. His father, Tom, worked in construction, and Philip remembers helping him tear down and then rebuild the family porch.
“He always wanted to be one hammering the nails,” Tom Strunk remembers.
When Strunk pursues his military dream, he wants to build on those early experiences with construction by moving toward a career in mechanical engineering.
“I’ve always liked working with my hands and seeing how things work,” Strunk said. “I take things apart all the time and then I put them back together.”
While he believes the military life will be a path for success for him, he is cognizant of the changes taking place. Fewer candidates are being selected for the military academies and his beloved Thunderbirds may not get a chance to perform at this year’s Air & Water Show on Chicago’s lakefront.
“I don’t think we should have military cuts because the military keeps us the land of the free,” he said. “Whatever the choices are of congress and the president, I am going to support them because they are our leaders.”
Strunk still finds time to have for fun. At home for break in March, he and his family took a trip to Columbus, OH, so he could see his beloved Blackhawks and a trip to his grandfather’s home in Colorado is planned after the school year winds down.
For now, Strunk is very pleased with the way things are going for him and his parents share in that pleasure.
Mother Pam sums it up this way. “Phil has always been a daredevil. There was no tree high enough he wouldn’t climb.”