Jeff Epps' inspiration for a career as an Army helicopter pilot literally came from above.
"They brought in one of the med-evac helicopters from Lubbock — it landed right there in the field," said Epps, who at the time was attending a Boys State leadership forum in Portales in his junior year of high school. "I thought — that would be awesome-that would be such a rewarding job."
Today, the 26-year-old Clovis High and West Point graduate flies a Black Hawk helicopter.
On leave from Afghanistan, Capt. Epps reunited with his wife and family this week in Clovis after nine months of deployment.
Epps attributes his educational and military success to God, good parents and hard work.
"Playing sports made me what I am today," said Epps, who played quarterback as a junior and linebacker as a senior at Clovis High School. "My dad was a coach. He understood how sports develop your leadership, team-work capabilities and work ethic."
"He learned a lot of discipline through all that," Sharon Epps said of her only son. "Our kids would be wimps if it wasn't for their dad."
Additional inspiration for flying choppers came from Ernest "Doc" Stewart, who Epps met the summer of his junior year while cleaning pools part-time. "Doc asked me what I wanted to do, and I said the only thing I could think of that would be awesome would be to fly helicopters."
Stewart, whose son was a West Point graduate, told Epps he could learn to fly choppers in the Army and thought Epps was a good candidate for the officer training school.
After that, getting into West Point became a family affair.
"You have to be congressionally appointed to go to West Point." Sharon Epps said. "We got really busy." Jeff Epps submitted a lengthy application that included several essays and was selected to interview with the nomination board.
"One of the questions they asked was 'describe to me a date you would take my daughter on,'" Epps said. "I was raised right. I had two wonderful parents, so I guess the answer I gave them made them happy. I got a nomination."
According to Epps, each state congressman can nominate up to 10 West Point candidates annually, from which West Point selects 1,000 to 1,200 new students each year. "I was very blessed to even get in," Epps said. "There are a lot of kids who start their eighth and ninth grade years building up a resume to get into West Point."
Epps said he was naive about the Army process.
"All I wanted to do was fly helicopters," Epps said. "So I show up to West Point, thinking I'm going to fly, and I find out that only the top 20 percent of the class get aviation training."
Epps, who had enrolled in West Point's mechanical engineering program, said, "So now I've chosen one of the most difficult majors and I have to be in the top 20 percent of the class to get in the branch I want."
Epps graduated from West Point in 2008 and finished flight school in 2010.
"I was very blessed," Jeff Epps said. "I had really good parents. That's what it all goes down to. If you have a good base, a good raising, you're going to be successful."
Epps said his parents went to every game he ever played.
"Everything was important to them." Epps said. "It was just the fact that they cared so much."
Epps, who married Clovis native Ali Garrett a year and a half ago, deliberately scheduled his leave for February.
"I wanted to be home for her birthday," Epps said. "When I go back to Afghanistan I've got two and half more months and then I'll be back at Fort Hood."
Ali Epps lives with her parents in Roswell and attends college while Epps is deployed.
"That keeps me very busy," said Ali Epps. "I'm very blessed to be his wife. I'm very proud of him. I literally pray for him non-stop."