There aren't too many 16-year-olds who are part of their high school graduating class. There aren’t too many teenagers willing to forgo their summer break just so they can graduate early. And there aren’t too many Deerfield teens that pursue the military as a career.
It may be unusual, but welcome to the world of Nathaniel Winstead.
Winsted, 18, is continuing to swim against the tide in a literal sense as he has joined the Navy, instead of taking the more traditional path and going to college.
“The respect that Nate had for people in the military was something he wanted for himself,” said his mother, Susan. “He amazes me.”
Winstead is from a Deerfield family that has public service in its blood. His father Michael is a Navy reservist, who has been part of the military since he was 17. His mother is a teaching assistant in Highland Park and his sister is a police officer in Wisconsin.
With that as a background, a military career was almost destined for Nate.
“We did some specific project work on Veteran’s Day and that resonated with him,” Winstead’s former teacher David Komie of Shepard Middle School said. “We corresponded with a soldier who was in Iraq at the time and you could tell it was significant to him. You could always tell the military was going to be an option for him.”
Winstead says he was the only one who signed up from school when the recruiter arrived at the school. He was in a position to join early as he took summer courses throughout his time at Deerfield High School and was a mere 16 when he took part in the 2011 graduation ceremony. (Technically, he finished up at the age of 17 following a summer school course.)
Later on in 2011, Winstead took a job at a big chain electronics store in the car audio department, pursuing his passion for automobiles.
But by April of this year his dream was realized and he was enrolled at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, just 20 minutes north of his hometown.
The distance may have been short, but Winstead was entering a whole new world. He was getting to know people from all parts of the country and battling homesickness as the only outside communication allowed during those two months were letters.
Then there were the demands, coming from the instructors with exercise routines that would scare off event the most dedicated of gym rats.
“Getting into basic training, it was a definite culture shock,” Winstead said. “Everything is different. Everything has to be perfect. How your clothes are worn, how they are folded.”
Because of a miscue with a mail cart that he did not have with him one day as he was supposed to, Winstead’s squad of about 70 received extra drills one day. He heard some groans at first, but it quickly went away. He wasn’t the only recruit to bring on “intensive training” for his squad, but it was not pleasant to deal with the error he made that caused the punishment.
“It was a stupid mistake and it was a little embarrassing to be the reason for it,” he said.
After basic training, Winstead moved down to Pensacola where last week because of Hurricane Isaac, everyone had to be evacuated to a base in Georgia for a couple of days.
Winstead will soon be on his way to Norfolk to continue to pursue his Navy career, which he hopes will include bomb disposal. If he is able to secure that assignment, look for Winstead to make the Navy a full time career, well beyond the five year commitment he has already made.
Besides his duties in Norfolk, Winstead is planning to take online courses so other career options will be available to him.
Taking a Different Path
Most of his buddies from Deerfieled are now in college, experiencing freedom for the first time in their lives and living the life of college freshmen and sophomores.
Does he regret not having the parties, the carousing and the silliness and all the other fun parts of college?
“There is always the thought I wish I had gone to college and experienced that and but then I look at the fact that I am serving so they can go out and do those things.”
He even thinks that some of his friends are jealous of him in a way.
“My close friends knew I wanted to join since I was little. They were all really supportive of me joining,” he said. “I get calls from them every night wanting to know how I was doing. There is a sense of them being scared for me but also I have inspired them. One of my friends is thinking about joining the Air Force.”
Still, there are the other basics of civilian life that Winstead is missing out on such as not being able to watch the Cubs or the Summer Olympics as TV are not in the room he shares now with a roommate from Tennessee.
“It sucks, but it is part of the job,” he concedes.
Of course there is the larger question of what happens if he is sent into action.
“There is always the thought of being deployed. You can’t say you aren’t nervous, but I am also excited,” he said. “If I do get deployed I get to fulfill why I joined the service.”
His mother takes the approach of crossing that bridge when we come to it.
“My feeling is now he is safe,” she said. “Do I think about what can happen? Yes, but I try not to dwell on it.”
No doubt this is a difficult task that Winstead has chosen to pursue, but there is the fringe benefit of respect that he receives that he truly loves.
“The support we get from family back home and even people we don’t know,” he said. “I’ve gone to the store and gotten thanked for my service. It lets people know that they are grateful for what you are doing.”