By Jug Varner
Visited in September 1994

As a retired naval officer visiting the U. S. Military Academy for the first time, I couldn't resist sending a postcard to a retired Army friend — a West Point graduate who also served a tour here as a military instructor. When I saw him later, his response was, “I'm glad you finally got to see a real military post for a change!” Service rivalry aside, I had to admit he was right. I was thoroughly impressed.

West Point, the oldest of all service academies, is truly inspiring — with its beautiful natural setting in the mountain region of western New York, overlooking the wide Hudson River. Its Gothic architecture not only lends a feeling of substance and continuity, but history as well, as does its many statues, memorials and trophies of war and remembrance, dating back to the American Revolution.

Although the Military Academy was not founded until 1802, Gen. George Washington stationed a permanent garrison of troops at West Point in 1778. Controlling the Hudson River played a vital role in the ultimate defeat of British forces.

Throughout the years, The Corps has kept alive the Academy's customs and traditions. Except for minor adjustments for women, the cadet gray dress uniform has changed little from those worn by their early predecessors and are still made today by Academy tailors. The Plebe (Freshman) routine and control by upperclassmen is much the same as it has always been.

My friend's Plebe year was unusual to say the least. He was already a 1st LT, with three years active duty and prior college education, when he decided he wanted to make the Army his career. This was in the late 1940s, when it seemed to him the obvious avenue for career promotion would be as an Academy graduate in the regular Army, not as a reserve officer. Today, of course, officers who come through ROTC, OCS and other programs now have good career opportunities, but such was not the case right after WWII. So he sought appointment to the Academy, gave up his commission and good pay and began all over again as a Plebe. His upperclassmen made sure it would be a humbling year to remember for this former 1st Lt. Four years later he became a 2nd LT and never regretted his decision.

In addition to the outstanding education Academy graduates receive, they are instilled with a Code of Honor that decrees “a Cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do,” an appreciation of military history and tradition, a strong sense of duty, honor and country, and an esprit de corps that continues throughout their lives.

Students who enter West Point are not “the elite,” in terms of aristocracy or socioeconomic influence. They come from all walks of life, including the well-to-do, the working class, the disadvantaged and the racial minorities — a true representation of America. They are immersed four years in a value-enriched professional military culture, living 24 hours a day within a military organization, subject to the Honor Code and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Corps of Cadets numbers about 4,000 and is organized as a brigade of four regiments. Each regiment is made of three battalions of four companies each. The 36 companies each number from 100-120 Cadets from all four classes. Cadet leaders exercise command responsibility in most phases of cadet life. As members of the U.S. Army, they receive room, board, tuition and medical/dental care, and about $6,500 per year. Out of that amount, each must pay for a personal computer, uniforms, textbooks and activity fees.

Washington Hall provides one of the world's largest dining rooms, where the entire Corps take their family-style meals together in one sitting. They live in surrounding barracks named for famous generals such as Bradley, Eisenhower, Grant, Lee, MacArthur, Pershing, Scott and Sherman. Many other buildings and facilities are also named for West Point's famous graduates

Each generation that moves through the Academy is a reflection of America's cultures, politics and military requirements of their time. To satisfy a curiosity about whether today's “new breed” measure up to the military standards and expectations of my own service years, I asked my Academy hosts to arrange a private group interview with cadets from each year's class.

Two were female — a Plebe from North Dakota and a First Class from Illinois. The three male cadets, in their second and third years, were from New York, Texas and Utah. All five had diverse interests and backgrounds. Collectively, they represented rural, urban and suburban life and both large and small high schools. Our conversations were relaxed and off-the-cuff and their replies generally seemed to reflect true feelings.

The Plebe's responses were a bit hesitant, probably due to the daze of being new and under more pressure than she had anticipated. It was very early in her first semester and Plebe routine. By contrast, the senior cadet was sharp, poised, obviously in control of herself and her planned career pattern in hospital administration. Except for the third-year cadet who wanted Artillery, the other three were not yet ready to choose a specialty. Each was highly enthusiastic about the Corps and West Point. None expressed any doubt about being in the right place, although the Plebe wasn't as emphatic as the others.

I asked the senior if she ever had any concerns about successfully competing in this 87% male environment. She said she wasn't worried about the academics when she arrived here, because she always made good grades in school and continued doing so at the Academy. However, not being the athletic type, she had serious reservations about the physical aspects of the Army.

The big test came at the end of her first year, during the mandatory summer training at Camp Buckner. This is where cadets go to learn what the real Army is all about — with hands-on experience in weaponry, equipment, engineering work, communications, field exercises and all of the physical activities and conditioning that go with it. In this six-week period, she proved to herself and the Army that she could perform the physical requirements right along with everyone else. This turning point bolstered her self-esteem and she knew she would succeed.

If these five cadets are typical of today's Corps, and I believe they are, the Army of the future will be in good hands. Despite the negative headlines about problems that occasionally plague our military academies, those involved represent only a small percentage of the total Corps. The overwhelming majority of these young men and women are the cream of the crop mentally, morally and physically and should not be demeaned by the relatively few who go against the Code of Honor.

Their motto, “Duty - Honor - Country,” is the essence of The Corps. The implications of upholding these lofty ideals are sobering, but are “truth” to these future officers. The Long Gray Line of those who have gone before them serve as their inspiration to uphold this truth.

Another important facet of morality is the Cadet Chapel, which serves all faiths and plays an important role in West Point history and tradition. Only cadets and brides may walk the center aisle. All others must use the side aisles. Aloft inside are flags carried in ever major Army engagement since Revolutionary times. Its pipe organ is the largest of its kind in the nation. Its stained-glass windows beautifully emphasize its part in the overall scheme of cadet life.

The cadet regiments march in review on The Plain, once used as a drill field by Continental Army soldiers. Only three statues face it directly, as if honored as eternal reviewing officers - Gen. George Washington (later President), Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (later President) and Gen. Douglas MacArthur (later Supreme Commander of the Japanese occupation and chief architect of its Constitution). MacArthur's perfect scholastic record at the Academy has not yet been equaled.

Throughout the area are statues and other reminders of great achievements by those who have gone before. WWII Gen. George S. Patton's statue faces the Library. Locals say this placement is ironic because “Cadet Patton may never have even set foot in that building during his four years here.” He was the “goat” - last in his Class, academically. The Library honors many of its great alumni with special collections. An outstanding history of warfare museum is located adjacent to the Visitors Center, near Thayer Gate.

Trophy Point, with its spectacular view of the Hudson River, is the site of several historical monuments. One is the statue is of Civil War Gen. John Sedgewick, who never lost a battle, including the one that took his life at Spotsylvania. On the General's boots are the actual spurs he wore in that battle. There is a myth that “any cadet who experiences serious academic problems can pass the course in question if he or she can: sneak out at midnight, wearing full dress gray uniform in the light of a full moon, spin the rowels of Gen. Sedgewick's spurs and return to quarters without ever being discovered.” Maybe that is how Cadet Patton did it!

Today's high school student seeking the right college environment may wonder, “Is West Point for me?” The answer depends on his or her mental and physical qualifications, attitude, character and desire. It is not a place one should go to please parents, a coach or guidance counselor. He or she must want to be here more than at any other college and have the right stuff to succeed. It will not be easy, but the rewards can be great.

An applicant should be a well-rounded individual with above-average grades and college aptitude scores, be healthy, be desirous of becoming a leader and serving the nation, be willing to work hard to achieve all goals and, of course, receive an appointment from a U.S. Senator or Representative, or possibly a service-connected source. Here are statistics from a recent class, showing the numbers that were considered and selected:

  • 13,742 candidates applied - 100%
  • 4,808 nominated/examined - 35%
  • 2,419 nominees qualified - 17%
  • 1,195 admitted - 9%

The U.S. Military Academy's mission is to educate and train the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate shall have the attributes essential to professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the regular Army, and to inspire each to a lifetime of service to the nation.

West Point's undergraduate curriculum is first-rate and uniquely tailored for those who aspire to be military professionals. Its core program is designed to give cadets a fundamental knowledge of the arts and sciences, while the elective program permits individuals to explore a field of study in which they have interest and aptitude. Together they lead to a Bachelor of Science degree. A proportionately large number of USMA graduates earn advanced degrees as well. The school ranks fourth in the nation for the number of Rhodes Scholar recipients.

The Academy is the only source of pre-commissioning undergraduate education controlled by and answerable to the Army. Almost all faculty members are Regular Army officers who hold advance degrees from civilian colleges and universities; 99% hold masters degrees or higher; 21 percent have earned doctorates. All are role models who exemplify high ideals. The student-faculty ratio is 8:1, averaging 15 cadets to a class.

Military training includes field and classroom instruction in military skills, an intensive physical education program, and practical and classroom training in leadership. During their first summer at West Point, new cadets receive intensive fundamental military training to prepare them to take their place in the Corps. The second summer of training enhances the military skills that every young officer should possess. During the third summer, training opportunities include Airborne, Air Assault, Mountain Warfare and Northern Warfare training. One may also be assigned as a company officer with a regular Army unit. During the fourth year of summer training, a cadet is assigned as a leader, training other cadets in military skills.

More than 100 different extracurricular activities are available for interests in academics, Academy support, military skills, religious participation, recreational sports and competitive athletics. Every cadet is required to take physical training courses and engage in one or more of 16 intramural and 28 intercollegiate sports.

The sports facilities are outstanding and the Academy can boast of an illustrious history in collegiate competition. Its football and lacrosse stadium is named for Cadet Dennis M. Mitchie (pronounced MY-KEE), who organized West Point's first football game — in 1890 against Navy. Three cadets have won football's Heisman Trophy. Its baseball field is named for another famous cadet, Abner Doubleday, Class of 1842, who is credited with inventing the game.

With its high standards of mental, moral and physical achievement, West Point is truly the place where a student can, as the motto says, “be all you can be.”

For additional information, contact Director of Admissions, USMA, 606 Thayer Rd., West Point, NY, 10996.