FORT LEE, Va. (June 23, 2016) -- Somewhere between then and now, Joseph Harding was a foster child – a ward of the state who was subject to the strains of foster care systems.
Along the way, someone cared enough to lift him and his two siblings from state confines and place them in a home where they felt the warmth and protection of family and the stimulation of a nurturing environment.
Today, Harding is 18 and a 2016 graduate of Prince George High School. The “then” of his life is merely a remnant serving to make him more determined to succeed at any endeavor he chooses.
The “now” is worthy of being framed and frozen in time – Harding will attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y, this year, a feat achieved by roughly 9 percent of all applicants.
“It felt like a million-ton explosion going off in my chest,” he recalled after opening his acceptance letter in February. “It felt like I could run around the world at least twice.”
The USMA, with an enrollment of roughly 4,000 students, is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious service academy. Its admission standards require many to obtain a Congressional nomination. Those accepted – about 1,100 yearly – follow a strict honor code.
Furthermore, graduates reap the benefits of an educational experience worth roughly $400,000. They are obligated to a 5-year term of service upon graduation.
Harding’s journey to West Point arguably began the moment he and two siblings were adopted by an aunt when they were young children living under difficult circumstances in California.
That aunt, now Master Sgt. Ursula Harding, felt compelled to do so because she had grown up poor and because her brother was not prepared to shoulder such a responsibility.
“I knew I wanted to take Joseph and his siblings in as soon as my brother started having them because I knew he was too young,” said the Soldier assigned to the Logistics Noncommissioned Officer Academy here.
When Joseph was 2 years old, he, a younger sister and an older brother were placed with California’s Child Protective Services, said MSG Harding. Harding’s brother regained custody of the children when Joseph was 3, but he lost them once again shortly thereafter.
“At 6, he (and his siblings) was placed into a foster home,” she said. “He lived with a foster family for about 1-and-a-half years. I was phoned by CPS that the kids needed to be either separated or placed with a family. Nobody in California wanted to take all three kids, and I did not want to see them separated, so I decided to foster, then adopt them.”
Harding, who married her Soldier-husband Damian in 2003, moved the kids to Fort Hood, Texas, in 2005. By that time, the instability had taken a toll on Joseph. MSG Harding said he could barely form sentences and struggled with reading. He was required to repeat the 3rd grade.
“My husband worked many long nights to ensure he was able to read and finish all of his homework,” recalled MSG Harding, who said she and Damian also have three biological children.
The couple’s mission, bolstered by love of family, eventually paid dividends, especially for Joseph.
“Once he reached junior high school,” said MSG Harding, “he was taking honor classes. In high school, he was taking AP classes.”
Joseph completed his senior year at PGHS with a 4.33 non-weighted grade point average, good enough for 17th in a class of 423. In addition to taking on the academic challenges, he was active in a number of activities and causes to include Junior ROTC, basketball, soccer, the National Honor Society and the Interact club.
If Joseph goes on to complete his studies at West Point – and there are strong indications for success – he will exceed expectations of former foster children (according to a 2003 Northwest Alumni Study), whose college graduation rates are far below that of the general population.
Perhaps even more striking thatnJoseph’s future prospects are his attitude and persona. MSG Harding describes him as “ambitious, quiet, generous, reliable, self-confident, self-disciplined, sincere, nice and hardworking.”
What would one expect a mother to say about her son?
But the superlatives authentically cling to Joseph. A minute in his presence and it is difficult to detect any traces of his “then” life. He talks about becoming a politician, being an advocate for the indigent, striving for excellence, overcoming obstacles and being himself “because everyone else is taken.”
He spouts all this with such conviction, a billowing cape could rise above his shoulders at any time in a backdrop of intermittent lightning bolts and roars of thunder.
Most impressive about Joseph, however, is his sense of reciprocation.
“My country has served me by giving me the opportunities I needed to excel,” he said. “Why not let me serve my country. Why not let me show the world I can do great things for it just as it has done for me.”
That kind of sentiment is an indication Joseph has not forgotten from whence he came, that his “then” – the dark days of his childhood – is his reality, but certainly not his “now.”