Commencement at the United States Military Academy is more like a football game than a graduation ceremony. Tens of thousands of people turn in tickets, and begin to stand in the bleachers of Miche Stadium. They stand through rain, heat, and humidity. They hold signs and banners cheering for their personal “home team”. There’s a band, lots of flags, and plenty of uniforms to go around. People from all walks of life attend this event. Soldiers, civilians, parents, siblings, black people, white people, Asian people, foreign military personnel, southerners, northerners, Yankees Fans, Red Sox Fans, people who voted for Gore, people who voted for Bush, Jews and Arabs, Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists, deaf and blind, Generals, Admirals, and perhaps even a few hippies as well. For one day, more so than I have ever witnessed before in my life, these people truly and honestly put all of their differences aside to bask in the glory that is America, and the loved ones who defend her.
About an hour and a half before the ceremony, the graduating class forms up on an astroturf playing field to the side of Michie. A handful of unfortunate cadets are burdened with the task of trying to make order out of 960 of the most sleep deprived and impatient future graduates on the planet. The Corps completed final exams over a week ago, and since then, there have been nothing but briefings, room clearing, uniform fitting, and shuffling around buses of family members around post to random events. Most have absolutely no clue what is going on, but are still proud out of their minds to be there.
I stood there with my friends Rob to my front and John to my rear. John in particular was there with me from the beginning. We were in the same Beast squad on R-day nearly four years ago. I could probably count on one hand the number of months I have gone without seeing him over 4 years. To this day, John is the most even-tempered man I’ve ever met, provided he is not talking to a plebe at his meal table. He is cool, calm, collected, and quiet; but there’s a certain depth to him that I had not quite seen before. Rob Squier and I were roommates during my sophomore year at West Point.
Rob is a humble guy, despite being an absolute stud in everything he does. The man was a Mechanical Engineering major at West Point which requires nothing short of brilliance and a calculator lodged in the head. Even with his huge academic burden, he was also a track and cross country star at West Point. He would probably spend less time on his 5k races than I would tying my shoes beforehand. What impressed me most about Rob was that, despite living in Grant Barracks where the insanity of Cadet life is given a true lack of supervision to exploit itself, Rob was a man of god and peace. When some cadets where shooting pellet guns at each others’ faces, Rob was praying. He never judged, only served. Rob and John were going to be the friends with whom I would both start and end my four years at West Point. We are each quiet guys, but we managed to make some small talk as we waited for the call. At that point, I don’t think any one of us understood the depth of what was about to happen.
I remember when the band started playing the West Point march and the Army Song, signaling the entrance of the graduating class. To this day, if I ever walk with drums and music in the background, I find myself subconsciously walking in step with the beat. We entered the stadium, and though our head and eyes are focused to the front, the cheering and clapping from the crowd is tear worthy. The beat of the drum carries my heart and something inside me makes me want to walk taller and stronger.
I have been to several commencement addresses, and I always find it interesting how the speaker attempts to individually isolate each important person or group of people and address them specifically at the opening of their remarks. To me it’s like a contest. I bet on how many introductions they will get in before they actually say something of substance. So far, I have never been to any commencement that has out-introduced the audience like a West Point graduation. First, the speaker introduces the big brass, the senators, the congressmen, and cabinet officials sitting on the elaborate dais. After that usually comes the distinguished faculty and staff who are buried in the very back of the stadium, behind the steel curtain of lights, speakers, and cameramen. Many of them have little to do with the actual ceremony, but ask any graduate on the field and they’ll tell you they are the backbone of what makes the place function.
In the nosebleed section of the home side sits the under three classes of the Corps of Cadets. Earlier that morning, the Commandant would have promoted each of these cadets to their next year’s rank, so most everyone is getting used to the idea of a plebe that can talk. The novelty of new rank wears away soon, so the focus returns to “how much longer is this crap going to last, I’ve got a plane to catch.” That plane may be going home. It may be going to Korea, Germany, Hawaii, Vietnam, Egypt, Jordan, or the hundreds of other destinations that cadets will explore on academic trips or military training. Either way, the summers are busy, and this ceremony is just an obstacle in the way of the tasks at hand…for now at least.
On the flanks of the dais are the real stars of the ceremony: proud parents on the verge of tears from the thought that their sons and daughters have finally made it through. I heard one parent say, “so now my work is done…my child is set for life, I don’t have to worry anymore.” Of course, that whole Iraq and Afghanistan deployment probably didn’t cross her mind just yet. At the end of the day, my parents are the ones who got me to this point. I learned a lot at West Point in the classroom, on the playing fields, and training grounds, but I think the most valuable lessons I learned were on the Greyhound bus rides back to our home in Boston when I took leave. The traffic on the highways would keep everyone unhappy and yelling at the driver. Cadets whined incessantly on their cell phones to their families. Through all of that chaos, I was calm and joyful. I was about to go home to hug my parents, sleep in my own bed, and enjoy the company of people who truly love me. No traffic jam could ruin that for me. My mom and dad were there on my Reception Day to watch me march into this Academy…they’re here now four years later to watch me throw my hat in the air.
The graduating class sits in the benches facing the dais. Each wears a saber, gleaming white pants, and a tight wool overcoat with giant brass buttons covering the chest. The overcoat has a stiff neck making any sort of comfortable posture impossible. We sit and wait. I do not remember what really happened between the start of the ceremony and the hat toss. It all tends to blur together in the excitement and confusion of the week’s events. I remember walking up a platform, shaking the general’s hand and returning to my seat…but at the end, the moment was largely anti-climatic. I had worked so hard for four years to come to this point, and I felt strikingly little movement in my core. I felt no pull to tears as I often dreamed I would. Becoming an official member of the Long Gray Line means gaining the immortality of brotherhood; I was a part of something much bigger than myself. Yet at that moment, I felt nothing more than just…normal.
The reality of the matter is that, the harder I worked at West Point and understood the greater expanses of the U.S. Military, I saw where the true military accomplishments and public servants were sacrificing for their country… and they were not within the secure and ego-boosting walls of West Point. In my four years at West Point, I trained in safety. I learned in comfort, and was constantly showered with respect and thanks for “my service.” What service? I went to school and traveled for free. I was enriched by infinite mentorship and the resources to do or learn anything I wanted. I suddenly felt less of a servant of the nation, and more of a leach to its treasure. For four years, I only prepared for battle and was called a hero.
During those same four years, Specialist Andrew Moore, whom I met during Air Assault school at Ft. Drum, New York, had deployed twice to Iraq, endured nine improvised explosive devices, received mortar and direct fire attacks on numerous occasions, missed the birth of his first child, and saw his best friend die with his own eyes. Andrew’s story is not a rare one either. The Army thanked him for his service with a 4% pay raise to make about $14,000 a year.
I tossed my hat up in the air, I smiled, I hugged my friends and family, and indulged myself in this moment; not for me, but for my parents who honestly deserved all the glory in the world for getting me here. Yet even as I put on my green suit and felt the overbearing weight of brass bars pinned upon my shoulders, I still felt largely unfulfilled. I was a servant ready to serve, but by no means had I achieved the hero status my friends and family had given me.
Less than 2 years after graduation, I’m on the down slope of a 12 month tour in Afghanistan. And the adage is true: West Point is definitely a better place to from than to be at. I am not going to lie…I hated the Academy while I was there. There’s tons of paperwork, ridiculously misplaced priorities; people getting in trouble for stupid stuff and getting away with murder. We care more about parade formations and uniforms sometimes than our education and physical fitness…attributes which actually save lives in combat, and don’t just “symbolically” relate to discipline. I listen to my ROTC and OCS colleagues rave about their crazy nights on greek row, they’re incredibly promiscuous lifestyles, and the amazing experiences they had maximizing their freedom to travel without having to ask permission with a DA31 form.
So…looking back…is it worth it? God yes. I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I needed to…of course, i hope that never happens.
I write this post because over the course of the next few weeks, thousands of West Point graduates around the world are going to gather in celebration of Founders’ Day. We will enjoy each other’s company, praise our wonderful country, and bask in the warmth of true brotherhood; being a part of something much bigger than ourselves. At the same time, Many Plebes and Yuks at the Academy are nearing the end of their patience. Hell, I know the Cows are even wondering if this is the way they want to spend the next 5 years of their lives. I remember contemplating, for about a second, leaving the Academy during my yearling year at West Point. But the truth is you never really have time to think about leaving cause you’re always busy! But at the core of it all, you don’t want to let down your brother.
Looking back on it all, West Point was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I have no problem saying that to anyone who cares to ask. It’s not fun, it’s not efficient, it’s more frustrating than anything…and at the same time, there are people who still question why we even have service academies. As I said in my rebuttal to Tom Ricks’ post, these academies are about “Service Immersion.” So few people in this world truly dedicate their professional lives for the betterment of a greater cause. Whether your 5 and out or a future General, you never stop caring about the world.
But what if that doesn’t mean much to you? I mean really…what has the world done for you? Maybe not much. But even when the lofty sounding motivational speeches can’t satisfy your desire to drive on, you always come back to your friends. Your classmates. The people who make the Academy worth while. You never stop caring about the people to your left and right. Point teaches you to truly understand how to love people.
Founders’ Day doesn’t really mean much at the Academy. There might be a formal dinner or something, but again, most cadets are too busy refining their intellect, fitness, moral standing, and their inspectable drawers…but I hope those who read this are able to take a step back and just think about how great you have it…how lucky you are…and in just a few years, when you are in my shoes in the same suck in Afghanistan, you too will look back and say, “Ha…that place was stupid…but whatever…Ha, remember that time at Army/Navy when we got soooo schwasted…”
…live, serve, and die we pray…West Point for thee.