Although just 17, Riley Whitsitt of Fresno feels a debt to the United States of America he wants to pay back.
To express his gratitude and respect for the nation, Whitsitt enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in October, ready and willing to head to boot camp after finishing high school.
But Sgt. Oscar Trasoras — the officer in charge of the Marine recruiting substation in Fresno — had another idea.
The 17-year-old shouldn't just be an enlisted Marine, Trasoras said. One day, he wants Whitsitt as his boss.
Trasoras encouraged him to apply for a $180,000 college scholarship from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps; after four years of school, he would be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines.
Earlier this year, Whitsitt learned he was chosen for the prestigious scholarship, an honor also bestowed on Khayla Talley, 18, of Clovis.
Whitsitt will be honored at 8:30 a.m. Saturday during a scholarship ceremony at the Clovis Veterans Memorial Building, 808 Fourth St. Talley will be honored at a school scholarship night in May.
Whitsitt and Talley have been involved in a military training program twice a week at recruiting stations in Fresno and Clovis. Their superiors see great potential in them.
Their motivation to become Marines, along with their strength in academics, physical fitness and extracurricular activities, all played a role in winning the scholarship.
And beyond that, Trasoras saw a different kind of strength in Whitsitt.
As the designated "guide" — ranked No. 1 of 39 enlisted Marines training at the Fresno recruiting station — Whitsitt always is encouraging others, Trasoras said.
"The way he delegates authority" is a major strength, Trasoras said, along with "the way he won the hearts and minds and respect not just with us (his superiors), but with his peers most importantly."
A 10-member panel of officers chose Whitsitt, Talley and Jacob Pendleton of Sacramento for $180,000 scholarships from a region that spans from the Central Valley to northwest Nevada, Trasoras said. Nationwide, 2,500 applications were considered for the scholarship this year; 270 recipients were selected, he said.
Whitsitt attends Veritas Academy in Fresno, a home school registered as a private charter school. The lifelong Fresno resident is a junior black belt in karate who enjoys playing the guitar and leading some worship services at his Fresno church.
He will attend Point Loma Nazarene University this fall, a private Christian university in San Diego, where he is planning to major in health science. After his career in the Marines, he would like to work as an emergency medical technician or physical therapist, he said.
Talley, a lifelong Clovis resident, is a senior and varsity water polo player at Clovis High School. She is considering attending either San Diego State or the University of New Mexico and plans to major in chemistry. After her career in the Marines, she would like to become a crime scene analyst.
Whitsitt said there never was a question about what branch of the military he would join.
"There was really no choice," he said. "The Marine Corps as I see it, and as it's perceived, is the hardest and most challenging branch in the U.S. and I wanted to be able to make a difference and not only better myself, but be able to lead well. And for me, that never includes taking an easier choice.
"So I decided to challenge myself as much as I possibly could. The Marines has a very strong sense of honor and trust, and that always has been something that's important to me."
Trasoras said of Whitsitt: "I was just blown away — this kid is it."
Staff Sgt. Nathan Cuellar, who oversees the recruiting substation in Clovis, also had praise for Talley.
"She's very mature and she knew exactly the path she wanted to take," Cuellar said. "She had the confidence in herself to follow through with it and the courage to stand up for what she feels is right."
Some people have told Talley she should join an "easier" branch of the military, she said, or that she wouldn't make the cut as a Marine. Their words have been a source of inspiration — she is determined to prove them wrong.
Her response to the naysayers?
"I can do this — this is what I want to do. Don't tell me what I can't do."
The camaraderie Talley has experienced with her fellow future Marines also is a source of inspiration.
"It's like a big family and you take care of each other," she said. "I feel like that's where I belong. … I'm basically going to protect the country that I love and I'm being a part of something that's bigger than myself."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, email@example.com or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.