Chosen as a candidate for Navy BUD/SEAL training, KU ROTC student sets his sights on teamwork and a lifetime of service

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Midshipman Paul J. Cornwell is pictured on March 29, 2024, at the Military Science Building, 1520 Summerfield Hall Drive.

U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the real-life force behind the movie “American Sniper,” has inspired many, but one young man — who found himself actually standing in honor as the film credits rolled — has taken that inspiration to an extraordinary level.

“I just couldn’t do anything but just stand there… So, I knew that something was going on. And then I was like, OK, I need to find out what it takes,” said Navy Midshipman Paul Cornwell.

The 2014 movie directed by Clint Eastwood tells the story of Kyle, a Navy SEAL and America’s deadliest sniper. Cornwell, 21, of Quincy, Illinois, said that after seeing the film he began rigorously training his body and mind in hopes of one day joining the ranks of the elite special forces team. And in his final year of Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Kansas, he got the call that he had been accepted into the Naval Special Warfare community’s BUD/S training program. BUD/S is shorthand for Basic Underwater Demolition/Sea Air and Land team.

The end of the movie that brought Cornwell to his feet includes real footage from Kyle’s funeral procession.

It was during a funeral closer to home — his uncle’s — that Cornwell received word of his own acceptance into the BUD/S program from his professor and commanding officer, Navy Capt. Todd Copeland.

“I was in Atlanta, Georgia, and the CO had to make a tough call, and he called me while I was out there. It was like 8 o’clock at night, and we were all prepping for the funeral the next day, and he called me and said ‘Cornwell, I hope you’re ready for BUD/S,'” Cornwell said.

Cornwell, surrounded by grieving relatives, said he was in disbelief that he had been selected, but then the reality gripped him.

“I just went ecstatic. It just completely flipped my mood. I walked in and I hugged my brother, and my parents started crying. They knew what it meant as soon as I hugged my brother. I would call it a God moment,” Cornwell, a devout Catholic, said.

Copeland, a Navy pilot turned professor of Naval Science, told the Journal-World that Cornwell’s selection into the training program was special in and of itself because the program chooses just a handful among hundreds of qualified people. But for KU’s ROTC program it is even rarer; his research indicates that the last candidate to take Cornwell’s path to BUD/S came through the school 14 years ago.

Cornwell, as battalion executive officer, is second in command among his commissioning class of 10, which includes two future Naval aviators, one future flight officer, three future officers on nuclear submarines and one surface warfare officer, as well as two Marines.

photo by: Contributed

Cornwell’s Commisioning Class from left to right: Paul Cornwell, selected for Naval Special Warfare; Teaghan Shoup, selected for Nuclear Submarines; Grace Ray, selected for Navy Pilot; Kai Wernli, selected for Nuclear Submarines; Jackson Schulz, selected for U.S. Marine Corps ground; Gabe Wolff, selected for U.S. Marine Corps pilot; Brandan Herrera, selected for Nuclear Submarines; Cale Marquis, selected for Naval Flight Officer; Mac McArthur, selected for Navy Pilot; Not pictured is Corniche King, selected for Surface Warfare Officer.

“There are 10 of us commissioning (to become officers) and it is one of the most momentous (times) of all of our lives that we have been dreaming about since we first arrived our freshman year. They’re doing things just as difficult as I am,” Cornwell said.

Cornwell said his time at KU has given him a chance to develop and refine leadership skills.

“In the second semester of my freshman year, I was put in charge of just five people. It was called a platoon commander role. You’re just mainly taking accountability of physical training and you’re checking in on these people. The basics of leadership, caring for your people, and accounting for them,” Cornwell said.

Over the next few years, Cornwell’s responsibilities grew along with his command. He praised the Navy’s system for tailoring training and “ramping up” responsibilities to match a person’s abilities. He said he has never been thrown into a situation he wasn’t adequately trained for.

Copeland said that Cornwell’s position as battalion executive officer puts him face to face with the other students on a personal level while the battalion commanding officer reports directly to Copeland.

“His role there is to sort of maintain order and discipline of the younger students while the other (Command) midshipman is reporting to me. He (Cornwell) is the one that’s kind of mentoring all the people on this ship and he’s setting the example,” Copeland said.

Cornwell said the KU campus has been a perfect fit for him.

“I settled between the University of Illinois and KU, and I came here and just fell in love with the campus. I mean, just absolutely,” Cornwell said.

Recently the university and KU Athletics opened the Robinson Center’s swimming pools to Cornwell. The center was closed to students outside of the swim team in 2022. Prior to the university allowing him to use the pool, Cornwell said he was swimming at the Lawrence Aquatic Center, paying $55 a month. Cornwell said his swimming was one of the areas that, when preparing for the training on an ROTC cruise, he was told needed improvement.

“They tell you your weaknesses and your strengths. And they’re like ‘you’re a phenomenal runner, you’re good, but your swimming, you are terrible,'” Cornwell said.

Now, Cornwell has taken up swimming three days a week, arriving at the pool as early as 5:30 a.m.

While pool time has become a focal point in Cornwell’s training regimen, he still prefers his training with Kaw Valley CrossFit.

“They have allowed me to come in extra, like two times a day, which is not normal for them. But it has been one of the things that I (attribute) my physical ability to,” Cornwell said.

CrossFit in combination with the physical training required in the ROTC program has pushed Cornwell to peak physical fitness, but he said it’s the CrossFit that gives him the edge.

“It’s just an all-body assault every time. There is no getting out of it,” Cornwell said.

In addition to studying warfare and strategy in ROTC, Cornwell has also worked to earn a degree in psychology.

“So I started out in mechanical engineering, but I’m a little embarrassed; I tapped out of that because I didn’t enjoy it,” Cornwell said, adding, “I switched to something that I thought would benefit me along this career.”

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Midshipman Paul J. Cornwell is pictured in one of his favorite places to study surrounded by books on March 29, 2024, at the Military Science Building, 1520 Summerfield Hall Drive.

Cornwell said his current stint with the Navy is set to last five years, but he expects to make a career out of his service. And while qualifying for the BUD/S training program is not an easy feat, Cornwell said he knows the real challenges lie ahead. Whether he makes it past the next stage or not, he is honored to be considered and he will still have a place as a commissioned officer in the Navy.

But thoughts of failure are far from his mind.

The thing that excites him the most about possibly joining the SEALs is being part of a team working toward a shared goal.

“Joining a community that is so about each other. So selfless. I love the idea of that. And so I’m excited to join people who think like that. I’m part of a team here, and I love this team, but we’re all kind of going off on different areas. I’m ready to be part of a team that is all working on the same goal,” Cornwell said.

photo by: Contributed

KU’s full NROTC Battalion during a visit to Allen Filedhouse.


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