On Aug 11th, Sandy and I flew out to New York to see our daughter, Chaney, complete a milestone. Six weeks ago, on July 1st, she took an oath at West Point, along with 1,200 other new cadets, and began her 47-month experience at the United States Military Academy. Before a new cadet becomes a member of the Corps of Cadets, she must first pass through a six-week gauntlet named BEAST Barracks.
(I have no idea what BEAST stands for, or if it is even an acronym… but it sounds daunting, no?)
BEAST begins with the new cadets forming into companies, learning the basics of drill, and getting uniforms on R-Day. The jam-packed day concludes with the new cadets and their upper class cadre marching out onto the parade field in front of their tearful parents, then back into the barracks.
During the last six weeks, Chaney spent roughly half of her time at West Point itself, attending briefings, learning more drill, memorizing “knowledge” and doing PT.
(“Knowledge” is an interesting thing; each new cadet is issued a book called Bugle Notes. In it, there are hundreds of missives: the number of bricks in a particular building, Schofield’s definition of discipline, and other things (some really, really odd) that each cadet must commit to memory. Upper class cadets will challenge the new cadets on their memorization of knowledge… and may the Lord help you and your company if you have not sufficiently studied!)
The second three weeks of BEAST are spent about 12 miles away from West Point at an Army training camp called Camp Buckner. Here, the new cadets go through the gas house, learn land navigation, outdoor skills, throw grenades, and shoot a crap load of ordnance through a variety of platforms the Army has made available. They also learn the time-honored skill of how to sleep in a ditch… in the rain.
Some of the 1,200 don’t make it. Typically, about 40 to 50 students throw in the towel. I am not sure the exact attrition rate of Chaney’s class of 2023… but, indeed, the ranks have been thinned.
The last day of BEAST is the “March Back”. The surviving students pack up their gear in the early morning hours and, on foot, make the 12-mile journey back to West Point.
That last journey is highly symbolic… and the reason Sandy and I went to West Point on Sunday. To be there not just for Chaney, but for the entire new cadet formation.
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We knew the day we dropped her off on July 1st, that Chaney would “march back” on Aug 12th. It seemed silly to fly out to New York just for that, then come back the following Saturday for A-Day.
A-Day is an entirely different matter and level of importance. A-Day is the ceremony wherein the entire corps of cadets is marshaled onto the parade field. The new cadets march on as a unit and the companies forming the Corps of Cadets open ranks to accept the new cadets into them. At this point, they lose the moniker of “new” cadet and are simply cadets. As freshmen, they are referred to as plebes. (Sophomores are “yearlings” or “yucks,” juniors are “cows” and seniors are called “Firsties”.)
About a week into Chaney being away, Sandy asked if for her birthday present we could fly out to NY for the whole week, be there for March Back, kinda hang out for a week, then be there again for A-Day.
No twisting of the arm was necessary.
Being at West Point, and not being a Cadet makes one feel very very small…. and humbled. Laid out on the parade ground are a thousand or so cadets exhausted from the March Back, and now, after being given the formal command are cleaning their rifles. The parents are kept back a hundred meters or so making it impossible to pick out your cadet specifically. Instead the whole affair takes on the feeling of being a spectator at a zoo.
Frankly perhaps that image is intended. For the cadets that are here are special and unique…deserving of study and introspection by the admirer.
These new soldiers…. ok… these children… we only had a few weeks ago at their respective homes and fooling around with their fellow seniors, getting into trouble and tom foolery that is uniquely specific to the American Teenager.
Yet, while their fellow high school alumni has opted for late nights and summer romances, these citizen soldiers have chosen a life of service. The purpose of the Plebe year is singular…. to rid the cadet of the last vestiges pre-academy ego and bravado and make them… force them… to accept the position of “follower”. For many this is an extremely hard task for West Point to perform and the chiseling away of calcified arrogance is an inherently painful process for the Cadet.
Yet they do it, and they do it willingly.
For they know that in order to truly be a great leader, one must intimately know what it means to be a follower. As a follower they will observe Cadets above them experimenting with their own leadership styles. Some will make lasting impressions on the Cadets below them….both good and bad. For at the Academy, leadership is being developed in near laboratory conditions.
So, they struggle. They experience miserable conditions. They dedicate themselves to a cause far greater than their own success… they dedicate themselves to the success and defense of the Nation. The hardships they endure are the same hardships that cadets for generations before have endured. This linkage is important. For the Long Grey Line is a seamless chain that connects generations past and future.
Watching these soldiers, I cannot help but feel secure in a world so vexed with insecurity. These patriots do not do what they do for their own individual benefit. Were that their only motivation they would not have made it through Cadet Basic Training. What they do, they do for three motivating factors:
Duty, Honor, Country.
Go Army, Beat Navy!