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Five Western New Yorkers graduate from U.S. Naval Academy, prepare to embark on military careers

Some 1,079 newly minted midshipmen tossed their caps in the air at the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony last month.

And, unlikely though it may seem, five of those men might well have Buffalo Bills caps at home, and four of them certainly have Canisius High School T-shirts.

Now, they’re newly commissioned military officers, and the Canisius grads are quick to credit the Catholic high school on Delaware Avenue for their values of character, competence and compassion.

“I think it really does speak volumes to the character of not only Canisius grads, but also Buffalo, N.Y., young men,” said Andrew J. Karas, 22, of Amherst.

Karas, Gabriel L. Knoll and Michael Hamp graduated in 2012 from Canisius, while Kirk A. Kostrzewski graduated a year earlier. Daniel P. Ecker graduated from Clarence High School in 2012.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Ecker, 22. “Sometimes there’s only five people from a state. So you get five guys from Western New York and the 716, that’s pretty cool. Not only that, but it’s five guys who are really close.”

Karas, Knoll, Kostrzewski and Ecker were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps at their May 27 graduation from the academy in Annapolis, Md. They are due to report Tuesday morning to the Basic School at Camp Barrett, in Quantico, Va., where they will receive six months of officer training.

Hamp, a mechanical engineering major, has chosen to work on submarines, and hopes to become a Navy scuba diver.

Compelled to serve

Each of the men had different reasons for choosing to embark on a military career. It was family influence for Knoll, who counts Naval Academy graduates among his family, as well as for Ecker, whose grandfather was in the Army and uncle was in the Air Force.

Ecker said he grew up hunting, fishing and camping and was drawn to “the unknown, and the prestige that goes with being a Marine.”

“I told myself if I’m going to be a bear, I’m going to be a grizzly and be the best at whatever,” he said. “So for me that wasn’t Army, that was Marine Corps.”

Karas and Kostrzewski were similarly impressed by Marines they met.

“It was just the way that they carried themselves, how they were proud of their service,” said Kostrzewski, 23, of Buffalo, who remembers as a teenager meeting Marines at a recruiting tent at the Gus Macker basketball tournament. “They were very proud to be Marines.”

Karas, a weapons and systems engineering major, was drawn to the Marines through his interactions with them on the “Yard,” as the Naval Academy’s grounds are known, and while training at Camp Pendleton.

“Interacting with more and more Marines, I realized these were the guys and girls I want to direct, I wanted to lead,” he said. “I never heard a Marine pull out their iPhone and say ‘Oh, thank God, I only have 420 more days, 13 hours and 6 minutes left.’ ”

While at Canisius, Karas would joke to Hamp that he wanted to be a marine biologist “and he would always tell me that was a half-truth. That half-truth was the Marine part,” Hamp said.

That got Hamp interested in a military career. He spoke to the Naval Academy’s rowing coach about continuing his rowing career with the Navy, applied to the academy and was accepted.

“Canisius pushes service beyond anything else, and that’s what I think instilled the idea of service to the country – giving back for what you have been given,” said Hamp, 21, of North Tonawanda, an operations research major.

Canisius connection

The four Canisius graduates were highly regarded by their rowing coach during their high school years.

“These are outstanding, outstanding boys,” said Thomas Flaherty. “When they were on the team, some of them were the best guys on the team and some of them worked their way up through dedication and perseverance. Every one of them just demonstrated leadership by example.”

The Naval Academy looks to recruit rowers, he said, because of the sport’s high demands and its requirement for good time-management skills. Knoll, Karas and Hamp continued rowing for all four of their years at the academy.

Canisius has a track record of sending rowers to the academy over the last 20 years, but four Navy graduates in one year is a pleasant anomaly, he said.

“A situation like this is unprecedented to me,” said Flaherty, whose three sons and daughter-in-law attended the academy. “Maybe there are some other schools in the country that have done this, but I certainly don’t know about them.”

All four Canisius graduates in individual interviews Thursday morning at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park cited their alma mater’s emphasis on service to others above self as one of the main reasons they entered military careers.

“I think it was the lifestyle and the option to help other people – the idea of service that Canisius teaches about,” said Knoll, 22, of East Amherst. “I like living that disciplined lifestyle where it’s about other people and leading others.”

Brothers in arms

The men are also quick to refer to each other in affectionate terms, especially after eight years together in the case of Knoll, Hamp and Karas.

“I’ve spilled sweat with Gabe and Mike, I’ve spilled beer with Gabe and Mike,” said Karas. “Very strong relationship.”

About his best friend Karas, Hamp says, “I would do anything for him. I pretty much have done anything for him.” About Knoll and Karas, Hamp says, “In an instant I’d be at his side. It’s good to know that two guys like them have your back in any situation.”

Kostrzewski spent a year after high school at Kent School, a college preparatory school in Connecticut, before attending the Naval Academy, where he majored in history. He’s a year older and didn’t continue rowing at the academy, but still counts the other four among his friends.

“They are my brothers, in a way,” he said. “Not the closest friends I had at the academy, but nonetheless still my brothers.”

At the academy, the Canisius grads bonded with Ecker over their Buffalo upbringings.

“We’re all really, really tight,” said Ecker, an oceanography major who hopes to be assigned to Marine infantry. “Freshman year we’d talk about, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to fly home and stop at Ted’s on the way.’ Just get home and see Buffalo again, see the waterfront again.’ ”

Now, however, they’re embarking on the next chapter, which could take them anywhere in the world. “They tell you where to go and when to be there,” said Ecker. “Other than that, anything could happen. It’ll be a fun trip.”

To Flaherty, the rowing coach, the men are “going to be the kind of people that we want leading our country.”

Karas commended the United States’ all-volunteer military for stepping forward to combat “darkness” around the world from war and strife.

“You have men and women who are 100 percent willing to step up, to knowingly see this on the news and serve anyway,” said Karas. “I need to protect and I want to protect our nation and our freedoms.”