Four years ago:
I remember this flight. I remember the feelings of excitement, trepidation, and a sense of loss. The similarities back then were palpable. A few years earlier I had traveled with Sandy and Chaney to drop off Carolyn at the University of Oregon. Those same emotions manifested then as well.
Four years ago we were headed back to West Point to drop off Chaney and let her begin her “47-month” journey to becoming a Second Lieutenant. I remember this time in the air, looking at my daughter sleeping in the passenger seat next to me with an abandon only teenagers possess.
She is no longer a teenager.
Over the last four years she has grown into a woman, a leader, and, in just a few days from today, a military officer. Her friends, her crew… those individuals who were minted with her at the beginning as the New Cadets suffered through beast barracks and their Plebe year, have also grown before me. The softness of youth has been discarded for the awesome responsibilities that come with being an officer in the honorable profession of arms.
West Point, from a parent’s perspective, seems to be a series of formal events, dinners, and parades occasionally interrupted by intense academic rigor.
Graduation week is no different. It is not just a graduation day… it truly is a graduation week. Gear the cadets collected over the four years is returned, trunks of uniforms and saved memories are shipped home (a courtesy the Army provides), and arrangements are made for their first duty assignment.
From 37,000 feet I glance out the window as Sandy and I depart for our last trip to West Point. It is ironic that many of the same emotions I felt dropping off Chaney seem to trickle to the surface as we go to pick her up. I sit back in my seat and close my eyes. One parade and one graduation ceremony left.
It’s early morning on Friday… really early. We have been instructed to arrive at West Point by seven in the morning for the Graduation Parade. If you Google images of West Point, the most famous pictures are the entrance to the Mess Hall, with the Cadet Chapel towering overhead, Mac Barracks extending to the right of the pictures, and Ike barracks to the left. Square in the middle, just before the entrance to the Mess Hall, George Washington sits astride his horse immortalized in bronze, pointing forward across a large grass plain. That picture is taken from the bleachers on the other side of that lawn. That is where Sandy and I are now sitting. We have seen cadet parades before. On R Day four years ago when we dropped her off, the new cadets assembled on this plain for us to see. They then reversed and marched into the Sally Ports of the barracks beginning their 47-month journey. Throughout these last four years we have seen several parades, each of them culminating with the Corps of Cadets leaving us in the bleachers and marching back to their barracks.
This parade will be different.
This time the Corps of Cadets will expel the Firsties and transfer command of the Corps to the Cows (juniors) who will then become Firsties themselves. Once they have been expelled, they will not return to their barracks as before. They will stay on the field with us.
At 10:30 the ceremonies begin. Like most West Point official events, they start with a demonstration of the parachute team. 14 cadets fly down from 13,000 feet and land directly in front of us. Shamus, one of Chaney’s fellow Firsties who will also be heading down to Fort Rucker for flight training after graduation, has been on the jump team for the last four years, and takes the place of honor in the jump stack trailing the American flag behind him as he makes his way to the “X” mark on the ground that all of the Army jumpers hit consistently.
The parade begins with the Firsties in front of their companies. They wear their tar bucket hats with large plumes of black feathers. They look magnificent and slightly ridiculous simultaneously. The cadets on command draw their sabers and suddenly the ridiculous aspect fades away to something decidedly more terrifying.
The change of command occurs and the Corps releases the Firsties from their command obligations. They are left to watch the Corps return to its barracks through the sally ports as we have done so often. This is the first time for them though, and the realization begins to occur that they are no longer a part of the Corps.
The final step in the process…
We have moved to Michie Stadium where the ceremony will take place. The cadets march in with absolute precision and the Army band plays Sousa marching songs.
This year the dignitaries in attendance will be the Secretary of the Army, The Chief of Staff of the Army, and the Vice President of the United States.
The Superintendent of West Point gives the opening statements and introduces the Vice President. To her credit, and as many of you know, and like evidently the other 78% of the population if poll numbers are to be believed, I am not a big fan… that said… she did quite a good job. Her speech hit the right notes, and she read it off the teleprompter quite well. Whoever wrote it did quite a good job.
Then the diplomas are handed out (this does seem to take quite some time).
Finally, the now “graduates” stand at attention and are given the oath of office. The Class of 2023 is dismissed and the hats famously get tossed into the air.
Technically, Chaney is now a Second Lieutenant. While she has taken the oath of office along with her peers she has elected to have a secondary “pinning” ceremony where her 2Lt bars are pinned on her by Sandy and me.
The ceremony is actually a little more extensive than that.
Representative Young Kim has provided her an American Flag that has flown over the Capitol. Two cadets will hold the flag on a lookout overlooking the Hudson River at an area of West Point known as Trophy Point. A Major who had been one of her professors re-administered the oath of office. This time, though, Chaney is wearing her Army AGSU uniform. These are those WWII looking uniforms oftentimes referred to as “pinks and greens”.
She looks amazing.
Her gold German Military Medal (yeah… she has earned foreign military awards and is allowed to wear them on her uniform) sits above her name tag, and the aviation branch wings with the little propeller in the center is on each lapel.
The West Point Class of 1973 (the 50-year class) provided each graduate with a set of gold 2Lt bars. Sandy and I each hold one in our hands.
After the MAJ finishes his speech, he calls on Sandy and me to stand next to our daughter and pin her bars to her shoulder epaulettes.
Finally, the current cadets each come to congratulate her, beginning their address with a crisp salute.
Chaney is now an Officer in the United States Army. She is no longer a cadet at West Point. She is now a West Point graduate, and headed to Alabama to become an Army Aviation Officer.
A new chapter of service to the Nation is about to begin.