SPRINGFIELD, IL (05/14/2013)(readMedia)-- The Illinois Army National Guard is among the nation's leaders taking advantage of a U. S. Military Academy at West Point program that sets aside 85 appointments to the academy for enlisted Army National Guard or Army Reserve Soldiers.

At least five Illinois National Guard Soldiers have secured seats at West Point, with a sixth Soldier, Pfc. Jacob Weiss of Sherman, receiving a Congressional appointment to the academy. This currently ties the Illinois Army National Guard with the Georgia Army National Guard for the most appointments to West Point this year, said Lt. Col. Mark Alessia, of Sherman, the Recruiting and Retention Commander for the Illinois Army National Guard.

"We look at this as a short-term loss, but a long-term gain," Alessia said. "It is a loss because the Illinois National Guard is giving up outstanding enlisted Soldiers to the academy and the active Army, but it is a gain because these same individuals will represent the National Guard, throughout their military career."

Other West Point graduates may learn about the Illinois Army National Guard through these officers as well.

The program, dubbed "Operation Opportunity," recognizes "outstanding junior enlisted Soldiers who demonstrate the ideals and values of the Corps of Cadets - Duty, Honor, and Country," according to Lt. Col. Mark A. Boettcher, the Chief of the Army National Guard's Strength Maintenance Division.

To be eligible for the program, a Soldier must be a U.S. citizen, at least 17 years old, no older than 22 years old on July 1, 2014, unmarried, and have no legal obligation to support a dependent. The Soldier must also be a high school graduate or pass the General Educational Development test, be eligible for re-enlistment, have completed basic combat training and be recommended by his or her company commander. The student must have SAT scores of 500 or higher or ACT scores of 20 or higher.

West Point is among the nation's top institutions producing more Rhodes Scholars than any other college or university in the country except Harvard, Princeton and Yale. It has produced more winners of the Hertz Fellowship than all other schools except Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But unlike those other prestigious institutions, the U.S. Army pays for all tuition, room, board, books, uniforms, medical and dental care, training costs and pay for its West Point cadets. A West Point education is valued at more than $300,000.

Operation Opportunity is particularly valuable because it exponentially increases a Soldier's chances of acceptance to West Point. Each year, West Point receives some 12,000 applications. Only about 1,200 are accepted, including those 85 slots set aside for National Guard or Reserve Soldiers. Soldiers meeting the eligibility requirements may start the initial application by going online at www.usma.edu/applynow.

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