West Point is a fort. Literally. It served as a military base along a strategic point near the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War. During that time General Benedict Arnold was in command of the garrison, which would lead to the ultimate betrayal of his comrades. Fortunately, his actions did not result in the loss of the fort; instead they helped serve to galvanize the fighting spirt of those men and women whom he had discarded.
During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the still-operating base became a military school dedicated to producing professional officers to lead our nation’s army. This served two purposes: First, we needed a professional military that could compete on the same level as our European counterparts; second, we wanted to explore the west of our continent, and it was going to require a professional military with a professional officer corps to accomplish that mission.
When Chaney was first admitted to West Point, Sandy and I started the process of booking a hotel and flights for R-Day. (R-Day takes place at the very beginning of July when the new cadets are “in-processed” and begin their 47-month experience, starting with a summer of Cadet Basic Training.)
To say I was excited at the prospect of seeing West Point is an understatement. Unlike Chaney and Sandy, I had never been there before. Unlike me, they had. They had travelled there when Chaney was first going into high school as part of a mother-daughter college trip, where they visited several campuses. They went back a year earlier when Chaney had spent a week on campus during what is called SLE. (Summer Leadership Experience is basically a one-week camp for rising high school seniors to see if they would even be interested in the “Army life”.)
After we kissed Chaney goodbye at the beginning of R-Day, Sandy and I had a few hours to kill before the New Cadet Parade that was scheduled for 16:30. We wandered the campus, trying to get glimpses of our new cadets going through their in-processing stations inside the courtyards of their barracks.
We wandered up to the Cadet Chapel and looked in awe at the gothic design. We strolled by Arvin, the cadet gym, and marveled at the sheer size of the place. We looked at the statues of General Patton, General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, General Grant, and General Sedgwick.
(General Sedgwick has a unique role at West Point. The good General was a Union commander during the Civil War. He is most famous for how he shook off his mortal coil. During a battle, he noticed his men were cowering behind a berm, avoiding incoming fire. He chastised them and stood out in the open, proudly stating that there was nothing to fear! “The enemy could not hit the broadside of an elephant!” He was promptly shot in the head by a Confederate sharpshooter. He is now immortalized on the northeast side of the parade field. The spurs on the boots of his bronze statue are not fixed… they rotate. Cadets who are nervous about their chances of getting a high mark on an exam are known to don full-dress uniforms after Taps and sneak out of their barracks, and run across the parade ground in the dark of night to “spin the spurs of Sedgwick”. This, apparently, has some sort of cosmic significance that increases their chances of achieving a passing grade on their exam.)
Finally, and, most importantly, we walked through the cadet cemetery.
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Memorial Day has a way of making us think of these things. I remember being amazed to see the headstone of General Schwarzkopf and General Custer in the same place. The cemetery has been in place for literally two centuries and holds the remains of graduates who went on to serve and, in many cases, die in our nation’s wars. As Sandy and I strolled through the peaceful grounds, I could see tombstones, that had a “newer quality to them”, of those men who had graduated in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and had recently passed. They were old warriors who had finally been called back to barracks.
Then I saw them… newer headstones of those who had graduation dates as recent as 2018.
These were lieutenants and captains who had graduated from West Point in a time of war and had made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our country, mere children who had graduated just a few years earlier… contemporaries of our daughter.
The military goes through phases, and the men and women who join the ranks of that military do so with different levels of expectation of what they will be called upon to do. The kids who joined the military over the last couple of years have never known a time that the United States was not at war. They absolutely know at the time of enlistment that their nation may call upon them to lay down their lives for our defense. This is not an abstraction to them, as it may have been for a soldier in say…1985.
When Chaney told Corey, one of ADI’s instructors, that she had accepted her appointment to West Point, he invited her to join him that Memorial Day at Camp Pendleton. Each year he goes back on base and, with his comrades-in-arms, climbs Memorial Hill to honor those who did not come home from deployment. Chaney followed him up the steep climb and stood in reverence at the monuments to the fallen Marines. She was taking up arms as they had, and understood the magnitude her decisions would have, both on her as well as her fellow soldiers after she graduated. The abstraction had crystalized.
All of those who have entered the honorable profession-of-arms, who swore upon their honor that they would protect our nation, our liberty, and our Constitution… who made this oath, and then placed themselves between oblivion and destiny, and made the ultimate sacrifice: your memory lives on. It will always survive. It survives in the continuity of our union, it survives in the gratitude of our nation’s people, and it survives in all of us who wear a uniform and continue to serve, inspired by the selfless acts of those who can no longer embrace the blessed arms of their families.
To absent companions… We honor you and your memory!