October 21, 2015
By Jake Schultz '16
From a young age, Saint John's University senior Paul Knaak heard his country calling.
Joining the military was on his mind since he was 10 years old, so when he enrolled at Saint John's, he also committed to the ROTC program. What he didn't realize at the time was he would eventually be ranked the No. 4 cadet in the country out of 5,577 ROTC senior cadets.
"It really wasn't on my radar at all. I was running pool PT (physical training) at like 5:45 in the morning so I was a bit tired when (Army Lt. Col. Darrell Bascom, who heads the ROTC Fighting Saints Battalion) told everyone," Knaak said. "I had a goal of being in the top 10 percent, but that's as far as I thought about it before I found out."
The reason he had that goal is rather simple — the top 10 percent of cadets from around the country are given the choice as to which branch and specific area they will serve in after graduation. For Knaak, a Forest Lake, Minnesota, native, his goal is to work in Military Intelligence in the Army.
"I'm into the analytics and intelligence part of it all," Knaak said. "I think I could do some good there."
The ranking is a complex creation that includes a variety of aspects in determining a cadet's spot in the order. Some of the qualities that are looked at are the cadet's grade point average (3.96 for Knaak), their extracurricular activities (he's a captain of the SJU swim team), standardized tests and a rating by Bascom, the professor of military science. It turns out that Knaak's 84.9 points out of 100 placed him fourth in the nation.
"The rating is a quantitative look at their collegiate careers that focuses on a total soldier concept. So we look at their scholastic work, athletic ability and leadership," Bascom said. "With Paul reaching this point it shows a level of effort and diligence in terms of his attempt to achieve perfection. It's impressive what he's done and we're glad to have him."
Despite his own success, Knaak credits the school and its ROTC program with cultivating such good recruits.
"I have to emphasize how good our program is," Knaak said. "It's something about the atmosphere. We have a real discipline and work ethic that rivals every other school. A big part is we enjoy the training."
The hard work shows, too. While Knaak ranked highest among his peers, nine of the senior cadets in the Fighting Saints ROTC program were placed in the top 20 percent, and three placed in the top 10 percent.
"Our class right now is the strongest I think we've had since I've been here," Knaak said.
It would be tough to argue with, too, given that the battalion won the national championship in the Army Ten-Miler four years in a row before this year's fourth-place finish, and won the Brigade Ranger Challenge in 2013 and 2014 with a chance to win this year as well. Knaak is a key member of the Ranger Challenge team.
When he's not in uniform, Knaak can be seen in the pool at SJU as a sprint freestyler.
"I get to do the fun races," Knaak said. "Practices are quick but difficult and it's a good time."
Swimming is more than just fun for the history major, though. While he tests his body physically against other competitors, he's also testing his mind each day for practice.
"Every day is exercising self-discipline. It isn't always easy but I push through and it's always worth it," Knaak said.