We’ve not much longer here to stay
For in a month or two
We’ll bid farewell to “Kaydet Gray”
And don the “Army Blue”
By tradition, the last song played at West Point dances
Kris Yagel, the Honor Rep for Company E-2, sits in the First Class Club, nursing a beer and shaking his head at how quickly his senior year is drawing to a close. “I’ve already turned over my Honor Rep duties to the second class in my company. Ten days of class, then exams, and then … it’s graduation,” he says.
Cadets spend much of their time counting days and wishing huge chunks of time could just disappear from the calendar, but now Yagel is feeling a pull in the other direction.
“I can’t wait for graduation to get here, but I also want to spend time with my friends, because we’re about to be separated.”
At tables all around him, Yagel’s classmates seem determined to get the most out of this Friday night.
The Firstie Club is part college bar, part shrine. Built as the Ordnance Compound in 1840, the building was used to store ammunition and powder (ordnance) until the twentieth century. The walls are covered with photographs documenting the cadet days of the Class of 1958, which renovated the club so that the seniors would have a place to relax. In the not-so-distant past, cadets were forbidden to drink within twenty miles of West Point, which of course meant they just drove to bars farther away. Now twenty-one year-old seniors can drink beer within walking distance of the barracks. Many old grads think that such a privilege is apostasy, but Academy officials found that allowing cadets to exercise some of the same privileges enjoyed by their contemporaries at civilian colleges makes them better prepared to handle the sudden freedom that comes with graduation.
There are dozens of tables and a smaller room filled with pool tables, video games, and a jukebox. In the forty-five-year-old black-and-white photos, the athletes wear bulky, high-topped athletic shoes; the buildings visible in the background belong to an older West Point. The young men in the photos, frozen in their season, look like Kris Yagel: scrubbed, healthy, earnest. None of them would have believed the years could speed by so quickly; Yagel is feeling a bit of that amazement.
Across the table, Kevin Bradley and a couple of other firsties sit talking with Chuck Ziegler, a retired Army officer here for a weekend visit. They ask Ziegler, a former infantryman, about the force he joined twenty years earlier. The Army he describes—Ziegler served in Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Hawaii—sounds as exotic to these cadets as the wars against the Plains Indians.
Bradley and a few others drink Coke. They are only hours away from the start of the Sandhurst Competition, a grueling marathon of military skills that has dominated their lives for the past three months. The next morning will be filled with obstacle courses, running, land navigation tests, running, weapons disassembly, and assembly, running, shooting, running, rappelling, and more running. Bradley’s parents
are even coming to watch. But the talk around the table is of the Army, of what awaits them, how well they are prepared, and what decisions they must make. Bradley has reached at least one decision that weighed on his mind during the winter. He isn’t getting married.
“Just not ready, yet. I’m twenty-one years old and haven’t lived on my own.”
He and his girlfriend of a year, Amy, understand that his move to Fort Knox, then to Europe, will mean the end of the relationship.
“She’s getting ready to go to Australia for a semester in the fall,” Bradley says a little glumly. He is already beginning to feel the cost of the turmoil that comes with military service: frequent moves can be tough on a personal life.
Behind Bradley, another firstie, a woman in the spring uniform of dress gray coat and starched white pants, collects empty plastic cups and trash from the tables. She has the duty for the evening. Ziegler points out that the bar is neater than one would expect to find at most student unions.
“Course, the guard might have something to do with that,” he jokes.
Kris Yagel’s first assignment is Fort Polk, Louisiana, where he will be a Military Police lieutenant. MPs are either in law enforcement (the on-post police force), or in tactical units. Yagel is going to a tactical unit, which means frequent deployments overseas for peacekeeping missions. He and his soldiers will patrol civilian areas, maintain traffic and transportation routes, and generally enforce the Pax Americana at the beginning of the new century.
The discussion of overseas deployments brings the talk at the table to Kosovo and the prospects for a ground war. The possibility is on everyone’s mind here, especially the firsties. No graduating cadet will go immediately to the Balkans; all of them will first go for five or six months of training in the technical skills they’ll need to command. But many of them will get there soon enough.
Bradley is slated to join the First Infantry Division, the famed “Big Red One,” in Germany. A month before the conversation in the firstie club, three soldiers from the division were seized by Serbian
forces from a road in Macedonia. This evening, as Bradley and Yagel sit in the Firstie Club, the Serbian government is threatening to put the three on trial.
That spring, when the air campaign against Serbia began, Bradley and the other firsties followed the news closely. Cadets are not privy to national strategy, of course, and they do not have any special training to help them predict what might happen. But they are educated people who read newspapers, and they’re interested in current events that will affect them personally.
Bradley believes he will go to Bosnia at some point. In fact, that was one of the reasons he chose the First Division, whose soldiers make up a good portion of the force in the Balkans. (Bradley, with his high class rank, had his pick of any assignment offered to the Class of’99.)
“I think it will be a good place to learn my profession,” Bradley said. “A good place to learn how to be a platoon leader. I mean, I’ll actually be doing the job I’m supposed to do.”
His choice is ironic, given that he had been involved in a student debate on U.S. policy on Bosnia while he was in high school. He was opposed to American intervention and argued strongly against it, but now he sees government policy as something that generated missions for the military.
The first class, not surprisingly, spends a lot of time talking about what is happening in the Balkans. Bradley tells the group that his roommate, an Army soccer player, “never really spent a lot of time thinking about what it will mean to be in the Army. Now he’s going to the 82nd Airborne, and he thinks about it a lot.”
A recent newsmagazine photo showed soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division in Albania, where they were to provide security for the Apache helicopters that joined the NATO force in April.
“He’s got it taped up in the room,” Bradley says.
For all the talk of a messy involvement in the Balkans, the club is not a gloomy place; instead, it’s filled with the buzz of approaching adventure. Cadets play pool and sing along with the jukebox. They wear baseball caps and jeans and T-shirts from other colleges and talk
about what they’re going to do on the sixty days of leave between graduation and the beginning of training. They are on the verge of great changes, new adventures, and more hard work, and the very air around them crackles with anticipation.
The mountains on the east side of the river are lightly painted in greens and yellows. Through the open barracks windows come the sounds of cadets getting ready for Saturday morning inspection of rooms, the most thorough of the week.
Pete Haglin, the plebe determined to be an artillery officer, gets off a yellow school bus in front of Lee Barracks. He and two dozen other sleepy cadets in BDUs have just come from the start line of the Sandhurst Competition, where they cheered their company team. Haglin is happy that the semester is drawing to a close, but his earlier worries about whether or not he could handle West Point academics were right on target. His summer leave hangs in the balance; he may wind up in summer school for chemistry.
“I’ve got about a D minus minus right now. But I figure if I get about 80 percent of the points left [on the final exam], I’ll pass with a C.”
Summer school, called Summer Term Academic Program, or STAP, can eat up a cadet’s entire leave. If he goes to STAP, Haglin will begin classes before graduation day and will stay at West Point through June. He’ll get a long weekend off—assuming he passes his second go at chemistry—before reporting to Camp Buckner for summer training with his class.
As late as the 1970s STAP veterans were “awarded” a black star to wear on their cadet bathrobes. It was an ironic badge of honor, the equivalent of an academic Purple Heart (the medal given those wounded in combat). Eventually, the academy leadership decided
that such an award did little to foster a serious approach to study. Black stars are no longer handed out.
Two firsties from Kevin Bradley’s company F-2, are among those coming out to cheer on their team. Nick Albrecht is from Ohio; he wears the crossed cannons of the field artillery, the branch he will join in a few weeks. Ron Havener, who is from the far north of California, wears crossed rifles; he’ll head to Fort Benning, Georgia, the home of the infantry, for his training. Albrecht mentions Captain Brian Turner, their Tac.
“He had us over for dinner the other night,” Albrecht says. The seniors laugh as they describe Turner’s apartment, which is decorated in bachelor simplicity.
“He’s got a couch, a recliner, and a stack of green plastic chairs,” Havener describes. “We practically had to bring our own silverware.”
If the two aren’t impressed by Turner’s decorating skills, they are impressed by his hospitality.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been to a Tac’s house for dinner,” Albrecht says. “In fact, Captain Turner is the first Tac I ever had who sat me down and really talked to me about the Army, about what to expect, about the connections between what we’re doing now and what we’ll find out there.”
They drive along the highway that splits the big reservation. This is the same road that points to Lake Frederick, where classes of new cadets have ended Beast Barracks for fifty years. The road is lined on either side with signs, shaped like shields, bearing the names of the various ranges and training areas. They are named for American battles: Buena Vista from the Mexican War, Normandy Range. After a few false turns, they catch up with F-2’s team at the rifle range.
The nine cadets on the team—Bradley is one of them—are camouflaged and outfitted in a field uniform: BDUs, helmet, rifle, protective mask, climbing rope, gloves, canteens, ammunition, and first-aid pouches. The squad carries one radio, with the cadets taking turns carrying it. One rucksack contains a climbing rope. The F-2 team passes their initial inspection; they will be inspected again at the end to ensure that they finish with the same prescribed load of equipment.
The team is fresh, well conditioned, and nervous. This crew includes four firsties, which may explain why they make decisions as a group, like something out of a business school study of how teams should work. The firsties have all been in this competition before. The cadets of the lower classes defer to those with more experience (as opposed to those with more seniority); but no one, not even the lone plebe on the team, is excluded from the decision-making process.
(Interestingly, this style of team leadership is used by the service’s most elite units. Members of the Army’s counter-terrorist unit, the Delta Force, are task-organized for missions; the most experienced, best-qualified man is in charge, regardless of rank.)
After inspection, the team draws ammunition for the first test: rifle marksmanship. When the clock starts, they run a quarter mile to the firing range (they won’t stop running until they reach the finish line several hours later). More than sixty members of the company have turned out on this Saturday morning to cheer on the team. This is the majority of those who are not competing with or supporting Army athletic teams in away games.
The cadets who turn out to support the team wear a variety of outfits. This is a spirit mission, and the rules are always a little flexible when it comes to spirit missions. There are F-2 T-shirts with a cartoon gladiator, F-2 intramural uniforms, with the company designation. Other cadets wear combinations of camouflage trousers and “spirit” T-shirts; still others are in PT gear.
On the range, the rifles begin to crack. The targets, shaped like the head-and-shoulders silhouette of a man, pop up and get knocked down. After a few well-organized minutes they come off the range, have their weapons checked, and take off running.
The crowd follows the team along the trails that top the ridge-lines. The lead cadet in the cheering section carries a black four-by-six-foot flag with “F-2” in big gold letters. There are a half dozen cadets on mountain bikes, a few taking photographs. It is a beautiful spring morning, all sunlight and fresh air, team identity, and athleticism.
The men and women would rather be back in bed, but sleeping in is not an option, so they cheer their company-mates.
Nick Albrecht credits Ron Havener with the team identity on display; Havener was F-2’s cadet company commander first semester.
“Ron did a lot to pull the company together. He listened to people. He paid attention to the under classes. He tried to make things fun.”
The squad moves at a fast trot—helmets, rucksacks, and weapons jangling—up a stony, eroded trail to a clearing where they stop and put on the thick protective masks. The black-rubber-and-plastic headgear makes breathing and seeing difficult. The cadets will run nearly a mile in the claustrophobic masks, sucking air through filters designed to keep out chemical agents. By the time they reach the next site, they are seriously winded and sweating heavily.
The spectators, running without masks, reach the next site first. They stand behind a white tape barrier as their team lines up behind machine guns set on tarpaulins. This station is timed disassembly and assembly of the weapons. Calm reigns, and when one of the contestants is penalized for a tiny infraction, the others merely lay on the encouragement.
More running. The company commander, Murphy Caine, has been carrying the big flag up and down the mountain trails. He has painted a black “F” on one cheek and a “2” on the other. In his enthusiasm this morning, he painted the letter and number while looking in the mirror, so that when he went outside the company had a good laugh: the letter and number were backwards.