CHICAGO — From presidents to astronauts, West Point has long produced some of America's greatest leaders. But with only a 9-percent acceptance rate, the United States Military Academy is a long shot.
Dennis Martir, who was raised by a single mother in a tough Chicago neighborhood, beat the odds.
"It was tough all my life," Martir said. "As a kid, I’ve been shot at multiple times."
Martir never knew his father, a drug dealer imprisoned in a federal facility. Martir credits his determined mother and doting step-father with helping him sidestep gangs and stay on the right track.
"I wasn’t going to let the streets have my son," mother Yolanda Cancel said. "I put my life on hold to make sure that his life was going to be a good life, and he was going to graduate from college and be someone."
When Martir wanted to play with friends, for instance, Cancel had the friends come over or accompanied the kids to a park.
"I was never allowed to sleep at anyone’s house," Martir said. "I was never allowed to go outside."
Step-father Darvis Abreau entered the picture when Martir was 8 years old. Abreau often drove the family to a cottage in southwest suburban Hennepin and was very present in Martir's life. The boy excelled at baseball and was a star student.
Just before Martir was accepted to West Point, Abreau was killed in a car accident.
"It was great [to get accepted]," Martir said, "but it was also hard because the person who really wanted me to go to West Point wasn’t there at the time."
Martir, who has ties to Chicago's Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park, is now a second lieutenant who is about to start basic training and an eight-year stint in the U.S. Army. He hopes to return to Chicago for a career in public service.
"I want to give back and I want to lead," Martir said.