Lessons take on a new urgency at West Point

Cadets face reality that the academy is preparing them for war

October 28, 2001|By Tom Davis | Tom Davis,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WEST POINT, N.Y. - It was a month after the terrorist attacks. Four thousand cadets at the United States Military Academy filed into the mess hall and stood at attention.

In the cavernous stone building, where every sound echoes, silence fell. Four thousand of the nation's best and brightest waited for the order.

"Sit!"

Quickly, they did. They had only 20 minutes to serve each other chicken potpie and salad. Efficiency was the key. If anyone moved slowly, or fell out of routine, it provoked a sharp rebuke from a fellow cadet.

On this day, the milk cartons weren't arranged properly. Nick Howard, a 21-year-old senior from Reston, Va., scolded a cadet. "What did you forget?" he barked. "How are the milks supposed to be arranged?"

Such rules once drove Howard crazy. He hails from a military family, and his father is a Vietnam veteran. But when he arrived at West Point three years ago, he questioned why some rules even existed. It made him cynical, he said.

A new perspective

Growth and maturity helped change that, but Howard said the recent events also gave him a new perspective. He's a platoon leader, a leader of young men and women. Someday, he says, he could be commanding these same troops in battle, perhaps in the war against terrorism. If he is to be successful, he must demand their respect.

"You get an appreciation for the rules," he said. "If we're not ready, people die."

To cadets like Howard and others who attended West Point to become soldiers in a peacetime Army, there is a sobering reality that what the 200-year-old institution is teaching them is preparing them for war.

Members of the 555-member faculty at the nation's oldest military academy say that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks did not change their mission: to train and inspire the cadets so that they are committed to the values of "duty, honor, and country."

Aside from security, at its highest level since the Persian Gulf war, West Point administrators say campus life has changed little. Faculty members are sticking to their core curriculum, and they have not significantly altered their teaching material or schedules.

The rules remain the same. Wake-up call is still 6:30 a.m., and lights out is midnight. Cadets must salute the military and civilian instructors at the beginning of each class. They must keep their living quarters neat and clean. They must wear their uniforms in their waking hours.

But underlining that sameness is a stark realization for the seniors: In June they may be in combat, and not working within the major they have chosen. They each will have a five-year Army commitment, and many think that the combat role will be a long-term one.

A shift in thinking

With President Bush promising that the war on terrorism may take years to fight, they now look at maps of the Middle East, listen to the commands of their instructors, and envision careers as soldiers. They see themselves driving tanks, carrying rifles, and flying helicopters in some war zone.

Maj. Brandon Herl, who teaches geography, said he could see "the light bulbs going on" in the students' heads after the terrorist attacks and the United States' subsequent strikes against Afghanistan.

"That has shifted their thinking," he said. "It's focused them a little more on what's actually waiting for them. I'm not hearing anyone say, `Well, in a year, I'm going to be planning a housing development.' They're saying, `I might be living in a camp near a flood plain.'"

West Point faculty members say they have fielded a number of questions from cadets who want to know how the course material may affect them on the front lines.

The teachers have responded by trying to relieve whatever anxiety they may feel. They have mixed discipline with some lighthearted banter in the classroom instruction, and have drawn laughs when they have poked fun at the world situation.

In a recent slide presentation, Maj. Wiley Thompson identified Army supporters and opponents during his physical geography class and before the school's football game against East Carolina University.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and actress Angelina Jolie, he determined, rooted for the Army. Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden wore ECU Pirate hats.

"I like to spoof on that a little," said Thompson, himself a West Point graduate.

That same day, Maj. Pat Mangin announced to the cadets in his political geography class that the day's lesson would be Afghanistan. He promptly slipped into an impersonation of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo character.

Rambo fought in Afghanistan, in Rambo III, and he won.

Matt MacSweeney, a 21-year-old senior from Purdys, N.Y., later said that Mangin's colorful teaching style served as an important attention-getter for students who stay up late studying. "It definitely wakes you up," he said.

But students say they realize that what the instructors teach is serious.

Ready to get things done

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