Air shows were a Toth family tradition: mom Kathleen, dad Pete, and their three boys scanning the skies over Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehust for military jets that soared, swooped, and inspired awe.
At one show, oldest child Peter, in middle school at the time, saw a flier for Civil Air Patrol — the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The group accepts members 12 and up, and Peter was intrigued.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always been very patriotic, my family has always been very patriotic,” Peter Toth said. “I knew that serving my country was something I always wanted to do in some capacity, and I thought this was a way to do it.”
That air show, and Civil Air Patrol, started Toth on a path to a remarkable feat: He was offered admission to three U.S. military academies. The Barnegat High School senior had his pick of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Getting into even one of the prestigious, highly competitive schools — which offer free tuition and board — is an accomplishment; their acceptance rates, respectively, are just 9.6%, 8.4%, and 11.9%. To snag acceptance letters to all three is a feat (though no numbers are readily available as to how often multiple offers occur).
Toth chose West Point. It has a well-established cybersecurity program, Toth’s intended focus, and he loves the Army culture as a whole.
His parents are proud, but not exactly surprised. Mature and focused, their oldest started building computers at age 8. Soon after, Pete Toth gave Peter a voluminous book about learning how to program in the computer language Python.
“He just went off and learned it,” Pete Toth said. “It was a 300-page book.”
The Toths supported Peter’s Civil Air Patrol activity, driving him 45 minutes each way from their home in Barnegat to McGuire several times a week for meetings and volunteer sessions, from search and rescue missions and encampments to physical fitness drills.
They watched as he became a leader in high school — excelling in the classroom, running cross-country and playing golf, joining the National Honor Society, and starting a cyber patriot club, where teams of students essentially try to hack each other’s websites as a way to expose cybersecurity weaknesses.
For driven members, the Civil Air Patrol offers scholarships, chances to fly, and other advantages. Major Bill Petzinger, commander of the CAP’s McGuire Composite Squadron, said that when Peter was cadet commander, the squadron thrived, and membership doubled.
Peter “took advantage of every opportunity,” Petzinger said. “And just look at the outcome.”
Eventually, Peter decided to shoot for the three military academies. Applying to one academy is a grueling process that requires reams of paperwork, physical fitness tests, multiple interviews, and a Congressional recommendation. Attempting to get into three felt like a full-time job, complete with a visit to the Toth house by a U.S. Army officer.
Peter was unfazed.
“I used spreadsheets and calendars to keep track of everything,” he said. “I just considered it a long-term project.”
(And yes, he had a backup plan, applying to cybersecurity programs at Penn State, Purdue, Virginia Tech, and Rutgers. He was admitted to all four.)
Rep. Andy Kim (D., Burlington County) eventually nominated Peter for all three academies. The acceptances began rolling in this winter, with West Point the final feather in his cap.
“I honestly couldn’t believe it,” Peter said.
“We’re so happy for him,” Kathleen Toth said. “This was his dream, and he worked so hard.”
Peter is the first Barnegat student to gain admittance to a military academy, high school principal Stephen Nichol said.
“I wouldn’t have a job if I had 1,000 Peters,” Nichol said. “He’s always got a smile on his face, no matter what kind of day it is and what else is going on. He’s involved in everything. He’s the kid you want your kids to be like.”