Whitefish High School senior accepts appointment to U.S. Naval Academy

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Whitefish High School student Tyler Dunnagan recently accepted an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Tyler Dunnagan’s former Tampa, Florida high school has a motto — “men for others.”

As a freshman, those words had yet to sink in, and it took hard work and giving to realize their meaning.

“I didn’t really know what the motto meant until I actually went out and started doing community service,” Dunnagan said. “I realized I learned a lot of the life lessons that have helped me out through community service.”

Now a senior at Whitefish High School, Dunnagan is in his final semester before he’ll head to Annapolis, Maryland, for the U.S. Naval Academy this summer.

A nomination from a member of Congress or the Vice President is required for consideration and acceptance to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Dunnagan received nominations for the Naval and Air Force academies from Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, as well as the vice presidential nomination.

Dunnagan has been a Bulldog since his family moved to Whitefish two years ago. His father, Mark, is a retired Navy nuclear engineer, while his mother, Rachel, is a physician at the Kalispell VA Outpatient Clinic.

Though he applied to Montana State University, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, Dunnagan said there wasn’t much of a decision to be made once the Naval Academy offered him a spot.

“I accepted it not even a day after,” he said with a laugh.

Living by his old school’s motto, service has become a big part of Dunnagan’s life.

Back in Florida, he remembers learning hard work while volunteering for Tampa Bay Harvest, a community garden and food recovery organization.

Dunnagan notes the dreadful heat of a summer afternoon under the Florida sun.

“When you’re just turning compost, or bending over pulling weeds all day, you really learn hard work,” he said.

When he came to Montana, he was quick to find new ways to get involved. One was volunteering with the Montana Conservation Corps, a young adult development program that uses conservation projects to foster citizenship and personal growth.

The experience had its own lessons, but one particular activity stands out to Dunnagan.

“For the first week we were working with the animal management people and did loon surveys. We’d do a 12-mile hike, get to a lake and sit there for a few hours and see nothing,” he said with a laugh. “Didn’t find a single loon — but that one taught persistence.”

As a Bulldog, Dunnagan has also been involved in a number of WHS activities, including cross country (captain), track, speech and debate, HOSA (president) and chess club.

“I like it up here. It’s a lot of fun, the people are really nice,” he said. “It was a really easy transition.”

Looking ahead to Annapolis, Dunnagan said he’s looking forward to the same virtues he’s found himself drawn to in the past couple years.

The Navy is a great way to continue the embodiment of hard work and service, he said.

“I learned a lot of life lessons in high school through service, and I really got into doing community service. I just wanted to carry that through in my career,” he said. “My dad was also in the Navy, a nuclear engineer, so I saw his career that he dedicated to service and thought it was a great opportunity.”

He’s keeping his career options open, too.

On one hand, he’d like to pursue aerospace engineering, following in the engineering footsteps of his father. If he chooses to take his mother’s path instead, a possibility he mentioned, he’s happy the academy offers a strong medical program as well.

His biggest desire, however, is one many kids dream of growing up.

“I want to be a pilot,” he said. “The Air Force has great pilots but the Navy has like — you’re landing on an aircraft carrier in the ocean. That’s where the real pilots are, it seems like.”

He’s already visited the academy during a summer seminar and got a taste of “Plebe Summer” — the rigorous summer training program that aims to turn civilians into midshipmen.

He knows the going will get tough, but that’s the part he’s looking forward to the most.

“I’m looking forward to the yelling and the push ups and the water. At the summer seminar you spend a week at the Naval Academy to see if you like it or if it’s a good fit, and it was a lot of fun. We did a bunch of different competitions, running with vests on and sprints and push ups, so I’m looking forward to the intensity,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to make me a better person for sure.”

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