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Vickroy: Richards grad on way to becoming Marine pilot

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Updated: April 15, 2013 6:10AM



Daphne Vargas is only 21 but already she’s legendary among Junior ROTC students at Richards High School.

“Oh, so you’re Vargas?” sophomore Steven Grant said, greeting the midshipman. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

She’s the Vargas who enrolled in all honors and advanced-placement classes before graduating from the Oak Lawn high school in 2009. She’s the Vargas who captained the tennis and soccer teams and who earned a 31 on her ACT and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.

She’s that Vargas, the one accepted to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The one who is on her way to becoming a Marine pilot.

“I am here to remind students that with hard work they can overcome any obstacles,” Vargas said. “My friends and I all pushed ourselves and worked hard in high school, and now we all are doing what we dreamed of doing.”

Vargas, a senior astrophysics major at the academy, returned to her alma mater this week to chat with Junior ROTC members and to invite retired Cmdr. Doug Groters and retired Chief Petty Officer Dennis Reynolds, her first military leaders, to her May 24 graduation ceremony.

“They paved the path to the academy for me,” Vargas said. “They taught me how to drill, how to wear a uniform correctly. They answered all my questions and set me up for success. I’m in their debt.”

Groters and Reynolds remember things a bit differently.

Five years ago, Vargas was one of two seniors to sign up for the newly offered Junior ROTC program.

Vargas knocked on Groters’ door and announced she wanted to become a Marine Corps pilot.

“We told her what she needed to do but we didn’t hold her hand. She did it on her own,” Groters said. “But her work helped lay the foundation for this program.”

Said Reynolds, “It’s neat to see a recruit come full circle. A lot of times, they go out the door and we never see them again.”

But Vargas was back, spending her spring break offering advice to younger recruits and answering their questions.

Vargas is the youngest of four children. She grew up in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood. Shortly after her father, Humberto, died when she was 10, the family moved to Oak Lawn. Vargas attended McGugan Junior High before heading on to Richards.

She was a sophomore in high school when her brother, Alberto, became a Marine.

“I saw him graduate and that had a huge impact on me,” she said. “He was definitely not the same person when he came out. I wanted that discipline, that pride, that integrity and that honor. I wanted to become a good, well-rounded person.”

Alberto suggested she consider the officer route she could be a decision-maker. From that day, Vargas said, her mind was made up.

She loaded her schedule with tough classes. She not only participated in sports but often led the teams. All the while, she juggled part-time jobs.

“She went on to become our very first company commander,” Groters said.

Vargas said she learned a lot of valuable skills while at Richards, including time management and good study habits.

Still, she said, the route to becoming a Marine officer is not an easy one.

She has pushed her body to its limits — physically, intellectually and emotionally.

There were times she had doubts and times she wanted to quit, particularly that very first summer.

“It was six weeks of hell,” she said. “I just wanted to go home. But a letter from my mom and my brother got me through it.”

Vargas could have chosen to participate in an ROTC program at a traditional college or university and she did have her pick of schools. But she wanted to establish herself early on with the military.

“I wanted to work alongside only other recruits, and I wanted to make the kinds of connections you make at the academy,” she said.

Groters said people in the military jokingly refer to academy training as “the uncollege” because the workload is intense and there is little goofing around like on traditional college campuses.

Vargas said she has no regrets.

“I’ve done some awesome things,” she said, such as watching jets shoot off the catapult of an aircraft carrier and going topside while training on a submarine.

Now, with graduation just a couple of months away, she just learned she’s been accepted into the Marine pilot program.

“I want to fly helicopters,” she said.

It looks like she’ll get her wish — once she completes another year and a half of flight training in Pensacola, Fla., that is.

But first she has to graduate. And that is one ceremony she is eagerly awaiting.

“It’s an awesome experience, a breathtaking thing to see,” she said.

There is a tradition at academy graduations that compels graduates to give a dollar bill to the first person who salutes them as an officer.

“It’s a neat thing to see all these kids, sisters and brothers, running around after the ceremony trying to salute everyone,” Groters said.

Far more rewarding, he said, would be the opportunity for him to be the first officer to salute a newly commissioned officer — especially one who came up through his program.

Groters and Reynolds are devising a plan to attend the ceremony and perhaps bring along some of the Junior ROTC recruits.

“Daphne was among our first recruits and she became our very first company commander,” he said. “The fact that she was able to get into the Naval Academy is really neat.”



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