In his work every day, military science instructor Capt. Albert Costello takes into account his belief that small actions and seemingly small events have a rippling effect that can significantly shape a life's path.
"How we are 24 hours a day does have an impact," the recently top-ranked Reserve Officer Training Corps course instructor says. "Actions and words - whether you mean them or not - they do impact people."
Sometimes those words are spoken. Other times they arrive rather innocuously via the U.S. Postal Service. Take the matter of a well-timed postcard that landed in the Costello family mailbox in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1988. Costello was a sophomore in high school, trying to secure a sense of his future. The recruitment piece let Costello know that - if he was interested in it - the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., was most certainly interested in him.
The Texas teen had never quite thought of himself as prospective military. "I wasn't junior ROTC, and I wasn't going out and playing Army in the woods," he says. But the idea of West Point and its timeless motto "Duty, Honor, Country," resonated nonetheless. The youngest of three children, Costello says, "I wanted to try something different."
The academy offers four years of tuition-free education in exchange for five years of active duty and three years of reserve duty after graduation. That, too, played a part in his decision. "I didn't want to put a financial burden on my parents," he says. "I didn't know what I wanted to do as a grown-up. But, I figured I could get a great education and leave after five years knowing I could get a great job."
He filled out the postcard. And thus began two years of correspondence that ultimately found him landed in the academy's Class of 1994. "I haven't regretted it," says Costello, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in environmental science and met his wife, Ashley - also a 1994 West Point grad - through an academy classmate.
Costello came to the UC Davis ROTC department in August 2000. Last month he was awarded the Colonel Leo A. Codd Memorial Award, recognizing him as the top instructor among those from 270 campus Army ROTC programs nationwide. With 121 cadets, seven Army cadre and five full-time staff members, the Davis program also is the largest ROTC unit in the state.
Costello teaches third-year cadets ad-vanced leadership skills and oversees physical education drills. He also helps coordinate fall exercises at Camp Parks in Dublin, where cadets get a hands-on bootcamp experience - running obstacle courses and practicing M-16 marksmanship and land navigation. With Costello's help, cadets also rough it for a weekend each spring at Ft. Hunter Liggett, south of Monterey. They set up camps in the woods and don face camouflage as they practice tactical skills - like planning ambushes and organizing patrols - while pyrotechnic "explosions" simulate battle conditions.
Costello also personally counsels 18 male and six female cadets. They are at UC Davis to study history, neurobiology, animal sciences, physics, genetics, linguistics and more. "You name it, they run the gamut," Costello says. "We get to know them really well. So they know they have a support network."
Over the last seven months, Costello has grown to more fully appreciate supportive environments. Last fall he started pursuing a master's in geography. He's now taking 12 units per quarter and gaining a renewed sense of what it's like to be a student. "That's been fun-ny," Costello says. "It's allowed me to understand just where the cadets are coming from."
He expects to put his degree to military use, specializing in land-use planning. "I'm interested in how the military uses land, like with the transition at McClellan - what it takes to make that run smoothly."
While he has fulfilled his West Point commitments, Costello doesn't intend to leave the Army. "I never talk about doing anything else. I would miss aspects of teamwork and values; of trusting people at their word and being around people who want to do the right thing. They're not just pulling a paycheck; and that's good."
How have the events of Sept. 11 impacted your work?
There has been an attitude shift about the uniform. Public perception seems more supportive. There are more smiles on campus and more people see you and say, "Hey, how're ya doing?" and "Thanks for serving."
What's the best advice you've ever received?
That, as a commander, if your soldiers are your first concern, everything else will always take care of itself. In the same way, we have to care about our cadets' problems, whether they're academic or family problems; otherwise they won't be able to put out 100 percent. And also that you don't have to be the best at everything, but you'd better be the best at one thing. I try to pass that on. For me, it's sit-ups. (His personal best is 112 in two minutes.)
What are your hobbies?
I'm really getting into running. I haven't gotten to the point where mentally I'm saying I'm training for a triathlon, but I'd like to do that soon. My wife and I also enjoy wine tasting in Napa. But we're expecting our first baby, so we've put that on hold. We've been traveling a lot though - to Mexico, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. We've always been outdoors types.
What do you always have in your refrigerator or cupboard?
Steak. Growing up in a family of five, it was a big deal to have steak. My mom always served it with sausage, which I found out years later was simply a way to stretch our money. Now I'm always eating steak and kielbasa. My wife always says, "Steak and sausage, steak and sausage - that's all you ever want to eat."
Read any good books lately?
Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides. It's about Japan's early triumphs in World War II and a rescue effort to get out British and American soldiers who survived the Bataan Death March and were being held in a POW camp.
What's your guilty pleasure?
I'm a re-run junkie - especially "Friends" and "Seinfeld," even if I've seen them three times, I'll just sit there and veg out before I eat dinner or study. •
Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, firstname.lastname@example.org