By CDR Byron D. (Jug) Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)

Two hundred years ago on March 16, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating our first military academy, to be built at a Revolutionary War fort at the western extremity of our then young nation. Thus the name: West Point.

On this 200th anniversary date of that significant legislation, I want to again say a few words of praise for this unique place. If you have never visited West Point, you have missed a thrill of beauty, history, patriotism, and continuity that is awe-inspiring - even to an old partisan Navy guy like me. Or, should I say especially to someone like me — a member of the “greatest generation” who has served during three major wars — and who can dearly appreciate everything about it.

Youthful military trainees in all services, particularly at academies, are normally so deeply engrossed in the everyday demands upon their minds and bodies that perhaps they don't really appreciate the full significance of the experience until later years. But in retrospect, they will not only see it more vividly, but also cherish the memories for the rest of their lives.

You may have read my article about a visit there in 1994. If not, you can find it in our Article Index under Army, entitled U.S. Military Academy. But on this special occasion of March 16, 2002, I want to include an article written by a much younger person. She is Irene Brown, editor of U.S. Military Academy's Pointer View newspaper:

West Point, NY (Army News Service, March 14, 2002) – From the time I began working at the U.S. Military Academy (more than a decade ago), and saw my first alumni parade, I've wondered what it is about this gray, forbidding fortress on the Hudson that demands such loyalty and respect from so many people?

The academy consistently attracts the best and brightest young people in the country. Each year the admissions office receives thousands of applications from men and women who could be accepted at most any university in the country and not have to serve in the military after graduation.

Granted, USMA is considered one of the best math and engineering schools in the nation. But the difference here is that the students learn math and engineering as part of their training to become Army officers. And the road to graduation day is hard, rocky, and long for many cadets.

But it isn't only those wishing to attend that admire the West Point mystique. Each year the installation sees more than 3 million visitors enter its gates.

So what is it about this spot in the Hudson Valley?

Perhaps it's the beautiful setting of the academy, perched high above the Hudson River. Or maybe it's the feeling of wonderment one gets when walking through buildings that might have once housed Eisenhower, Patton, or MacArthur.

It might even be the overwhelming feeling of patriotism that abounds when watching the cadets march across the Plain, seeing the sea of white hats in the sky at graduation or hearing “On, Brave Old Army Team,” during a game at Michie Stadium.

But it's more than just the pomp and circumstance of the USMA that generates respect and admiration. It's also the academy's ability to change with the world and still retain the very core of its value for two hundred years.

West Point creates leaders of character. That isn't just a slogan; it's a truth that has proved out through the years. Names like Lee, Grant, Bradley, Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Schwarzkopf have been the proof of the academy's worth. USMA graduates have led the nation through selfless service for two centuries, not just at the military fronts, but also in boardrooms, operating rooms, research labs and even space capsules.

Today's academy isn't the same one that nurtured Patton, MacArthur or even Schwarzkopf. Now women march on the Plain, new cadets get passes and upperclassmen are encouraged to mentor, not harass, plebes. While engineering is still the academy's favorite subject, English majors are now common and humanities subjects are part of the curriculum.

Yet, for all the changes this institution has endured over the past 200 years, one thing remains certain: the cadets of today are just as ready, willing and able to lead this country as were the cadets of yesterday. That's what makes USMA a national treasure and a symbol of Duty, Honor, Country to people worldwide.

Congratulations, West Point. May the next 200 years prove as rewarding.