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Absolutely American
Four Years at West Point
Written by David Lipsky

Absolutely American
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Category: History - Military - United States; Biography & Autobiography - Military; Education - Organizations & Institutions
Imprint: Vintage
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: May 2004
Price: $16.95
Can. Price: $22.95
ISBN: 978-1-4000-7693-2 (1-4000-7693-5)
Pages: 384



I came to love, really love, road marching. It’s called a suck or a haze at West Point, but I think the cadets aren’t being fair to it. There’s something wonderful about being in a column of marching people: the gravel popping under soles, the leather flexing in boots, the kind of saddle-top sounds as the ruck (what a backpack gets called in the Army) frames settle. Occasionally someone, out of sheer misery, sighing Oooh, or just blowing out air, which in the general silence is like a whale breaching and then slipping back under the surface. You can watch a leaf float down from a tree or stare at the guy’s rifle in front of you. The boiling down of life to its basic questions: Can you do this? What kind of person are you, and what can you make yourself finish? Can you hang with the rest of us? Those questions don’t get asked much, in the civilian world.

One night I got stuck with a West Point company that was spending the entire evening on patrol in the woods. They had brought ponchos in their rucks and I hadn’t. It was about two in the morning when the rain started. A nice earth-smelling drizzle at first. Then it became a pretty hard, thundery storm. I’d never noticed that rain makes different noises on different articles of clothing: a kind of spreading, sinking hiss into a shirt, a loud spattery ploink! on jeans. One of the cadets offered me his poncho, but of course you couldn’t accept it. In the dark, I found my way to two trees that had grown so close together that their upper branches formed a canopy. I obviously wasn’t going to sleep, so I marched back and forth all night under this umbrella, rain dripping into my ears and down over my lips. Then, in the morning, at five, everyone shook themselves off and we marched again.

I never liked the military at all as a kid. My father told us it was the one profession we couldn’t pursue: if my brother or I joined up, he promised to hire strong guys to come break our legs. In his eyes, compared to the military, hired leg-breaking was an act of kindness. So when Rolling Stone magazine first assigned me to write about the United States Military Academy, I fought it. And I mean fought hard, as hard as you can fight Rolling Stone’s publisher, Jann Wenner, who can be firm and cajoling in a kind of (at least to a writer) irresistible way. When I gave in, and traveled to West Point, I was followed by members of the Academy’s Public Affairs Office. They chose the people I could speak with, they sat in on the interviews. I saw my way out; I was thrilled and relieved. I said I could not do the story under those circumstances, and I left. A few days later the colonel who oversees the daily management of West Point--Joe Adamczyk, a thin, steely man the cadets nicknamed Skeletor--called back to say it was fine. There would be no one picking out ideal cadets for me to interview, no one escorting me, no doors closed. I could have the run of the place. “We have nothing of which we should be ashamed,” he said.

So that was the first step toward my love of road marching. Very different from my original idea of the Army. And there was no avoiding the story anymore.

It had all seemed so foreign, a kind of dense green forest. Slowly, the trees parted a little, enough for me to step inside, and then I could feel the basic goodness of the place. As I listened to the cadets and understood how they were living, I had a strange, funny thought. Not only was the Army not the awful thing my father had imagined, it was the sort of America he always pictured when he explained (this would happen every four years, during an election cycle) his best hopes for the country. A place where everyone tried their hardest. A place where everybody--or at least most people--looked out for each other. A place where people--intelligent, talented people--said honestly that money wasn’t what drove them. A place where people spoke openly about their feelings and about trying to make themselves better.

One reason Rolling Stone wanted me on the story was that I’d become a kind of young-person specialist. You specialize at a magazine. On news stories, I mainly covered universities and students. I must have traveled to about thirty-five colleges in the five years before I first went to West Point. From tiny places like Wisconsin’s obscure, homemade-feeling Beloit to a thirty-thousand-student factory like the University of Georgia at Athens to places like Harvard and Yale that made me feel like maybe I wasn’t changing my socks often enough. I’d also written about young TV actors and the young rich and young media executives, people who had every reason to be consistently delighted. And of all the young people I’d met, the West Point cadets = although they are grand, epic complainers = were the happiest. That was probably step two on the path toward my love of road marching.

Here’s three: My friends had reached the phase, in their early thirties, when things slow down and you can relax and look around yourself again for maybe the first time since college. Before that, life is like sticking your head out the window of a fast-moving car: everything is rushing at you, flattening back your skin, your eyes are blinking and you can barely overhear your own thoughts. Most of those thoughts are “Will I find a job?” and “Can I find a partner?” and “What kind of life am I going to have?” By the early thirties, this stuff had quieted down, and my friends were thinking, “OK, I’ve found a life.” And then the second part hit: “Is this the life I want? Does the job I’m doing mat-
ter to anyone else?” It was right at this time that the Army and the Academy dawned on me, and I saw what it meant to live as a group, to share experiences, and to have that sense that other people were honestly looking out for you. And I have to say, that looked pretty good to me too.

And so, a road march. Everyone dressed the same. Everyone with a clear assignment: You will depart from this first point and you will arrive at this second point, and it will be clear to you when you have accomplished this. It will be difficult (in the Army, they say challenging). In place of the anxiety that comes from jobs that involve only the brain, the pleasure of a task that would engage the entire body. When cadets faltered, other cadets would softly encourage them. “Come on. You can do this. I know you can do this.” The sound of the boots and the smell of the road and the sun on the leaves and this soft, encouraging undertone. When cadets fell, other cadets would move forward, lift them up. I remember, during my first road marches, feeling simply blessed.


The magazine originally treated the assignment, when it began in 1998, as a journalistic public service. That summer, the West Point superintendent, a three-star general, had parked with some other military leaders at the sort of big roadside welcome center that features a TCBY and a Great American Pretzel Company (so that even rest stops offer the channel-surfing pleasures of a mall) and where there is usually one restaurant with sit-down service. The superintendent was wearing his green class-B uniform, and so were the hungry officers in his party. The hostess looked him up and down, from polished shoes to epaulets, then she smiled and thanked him for the selfless work he was doing as a member of the Parks Department. The superintendent wondered if maybe the gap between the civilian and military worlds hadn’t become too large. A few weeks later, the superintendent and the commandant arrived at the Rolling Stone offices in their full uniforms, marching past black-and-white photographs of Eric Clapton and framed guitars. The initial idea was for me to spend a few weeks on post, follow around a bunch of plebes, write something short. I ended up staying most of the year.

When that time was over, I didn’t believe the story was fully told. I decided to rent a house in Highland Falls, and stayed until the plebe class graduated four years later = the only time West Point has let a writer in for such an extended tour of hanging out. I saw cadets in combat with themselves, unlearning many of the skills and instincts that had brought them to West Point; I saw some cadets thriving; I saw lots of suffering (academic, physical, homesickness); I saw spot meanness and acts of great generosity. My friends were full of questions: What kinds of people still wanted such a regimented life? Why would cadets willingly put themselves through it? Didn’t they realize the way they were living was out-of-date? Those were questions I set out to answer. But I mostly wanted to give people the experience of spending forty-seven months at the United States Military Academy, an experience that only around sixty thousand people have had since the place got up and running two centuries ago. I learned how to read a uniform and how to tie many types of knots. I learned that soldiers are people--that when I flip on the news and there’s some officer in a helmet standing before a tank, I’m looking at someone a lot like myself, who’s lived through most of the same events I have, eats the same drive-through, can trace the same internal map of favorite movie dialogue and TV scenes, but who has made the decision to put on a uniform and serve in the nation’s military.

I’ve changed the names of several cadets, mostly at their request, including people involved in an honor hearing and three cadets who endured various hardships--a consuming relationship, loss of rank, separation from the Academy. Scott Mellon, Kim Wilkins, Loryn Winter, Nick Calabanos, Mrs. Como, Virginia Whistler and James Edgar are fictitious names--real people under a verbal false nose and eyeglasses. Otherwise, the names and nicknames in this book are the cadets’ real ones. I followed the men and women of one company, G-4, from the months they arrived at West Point until the day they graduated; this is their story.

From Chapter 1

Whitey's Dilemma

If you imagine the ideal West Point cadet, you'll come up with someone very much like Don "Whitey" Herzog. Since meeting his first veterans, Whitey has wanted to go military. "Just something special in their eyes," the twenty-one-year-old explains. "They learned brotherhood, service--they learned what real honor is." For ten years, Whitey ran his life like a checklist: West Point, then the Infantry, then the Rangers, the Army's elite.

At West Point, cadets wear gray, but when they dream about their futures, it's all green, the posts and uniforms of the United States Army. Each summer--while their civilian peers are walking the beaches or rubbing their eyes at some internship = the United States Military Academy sends its juniors and seniors to spend five weeks in their futures, leading troops with regular Army units. Because he's the number thirteen-ranked military cadet in the one-thousand-member class of 1999, Whitey got his dream in July of 1998 and trained with the Rangers. They outfitted him with laser-sighted weapons, night-vision goggles, a hundred pounds of gear and tackle, and sent him on practice missions: evacuating pretend hostages, breaking up pretend ambushes. They'd fly to some classified place, do the job, swing back to base with the sun coming up. Riding outside a helicopter, Whitey felt the wind slam his face, watched his boots sway over the Florida night. "Three in the morning, going over supermarkets and bars," he says. "I was thinking, 'Man, I wish my buddies back home could be seein' this.'"

Whitey grew up in the cold pubs-and-hockey town of Buffalo, New York. (His brother-in-law, Mike Peca, is captain of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres.) His parents separated when he was ten--dad a dentist, mom a paralegal. Whitey first heard the words United States Military Academy from one of his mother's boyfriends. First day of high school, teachers invited questions for the guidance counselor, and Whitey was the kid with his hand raised. "How do I get into West Point?" he asked.

Like any mountain, the climb to West Point is cut with paths, the ropes and bridges left by other climbers. West Point wants scholars and athletes with good leadership potential. So Whitey ran cross-country, grubbed for A's, campaigned for student office. On the side, he was moonlighting as an ordinary teenager: smoking cigarettes, chasing girls, getting drunk at Allman Brothers concerts. Next morning, he'd go be student body president at the Jesuit high school. "Real Jekyll-and-Hyde stuff," he says.

West Point cadets make a simple deal: a tuition-free education in exchange for five years as Army officers. Every September, the seniors pick their branches of service. If you like to drive tanks, you go Armor; if you enjoy measuring the world's challenges on a scientific calculator, you go Engineers. (If you're a business major, you hook up with the Finance Batallion and get called a Finance Ranger.) But if you have the true calling, you go Infantry. Tell a West Point administrator you're considering the Field Artillery, he might nod. Tell him you're thinking Infantry, he'll clap you on the back and grin. Of course, Infantry skills are also a hard sell should you ever decide to leave the military. "Think like a civilian employer," one senior explains. "Say 'Engineers,' that implies you can think a little bit. Spend five years with the Infantry, OK, you know how to sleep in the cold and you know how to kill people. It doesn't set you up for success." For the Army, Infantry means you're serious; for Whitey, it was the second stop on his checklist, the road back to the Rangers.

Whitey Herzog is sandy-haired, tall and skinny. He has soldier's eyes: entering a room, his eyes do a quick reconnaissance skim, picking up the areas of interest, filtering out what's nonessential; then they turn friendly. On his uniform, he wears the bronze star that indicates he's in the top 5 percent of his class militarily, which means that for four years he's performed West Point's duties the way West Point wants them done.

None of that meant squat to the Rangers. First couple of weeks he was there, none of the Rangers would talk to him; the enlisted guys wouldn't even salute. Like many male cadets, Whitey is a dipper--a tobacco chewer. (His third-year roommate taught a bunch of guys to dip, and in May there were awards. Top honor: Grand Master Dipper. Whitey got Rookie of the Year.) One afternoon, Whitey gave an operations briefing, forty minutes with a mouthful of dip, and something told him not to spit. "I only did one time," Whitey says. "I gutted the rest, which is swallowing it." A sergeant--a burly thirty-year-old, a Ranger--pulled Whitey aside and told him everyone was impressed; they thought he'd be spitting every thirty seconds. "You're one of the We now," the sergeant said. His last morning, Whitey ran the Ranger obstacle course, and when he finished the enlisted guys were waiting with an official Ranger poster. They'd covered it with signatures and messages, like a kid's yearbook: "Gain Weight," "Go in the Infantry," and "We'll See You in the Ranger Battalion."

So when he got back to West Point, Whitey gave his measurements for the uniform to the Academy tailor. He'd decided to be an Infantry mud crawler with his roommate, Rob "Harley" Whitten, and his buddy Antonio "Iggy" Ignacio. "That's when the stress just started building," Whitey says. One July night his Ranger platoon leader--a twenty-five-year-old first lieutenant, hard-core--had taken him to a bar in Columbus, Georgia, the low-roofed town outside Ranger headquarters. When they were very drunk, the PL announced, "After the Rangers, I'm done." Army life had left him feeling cut off from everything that wasn't

Army. "I don't remember the last time I was out on a date--I don't even know how to act in front of a girl anymore," the lieutenant said. "I'm so burnt, I just want to get out." Whitey kept thinking about it.

"I was choosing what to do with my life," he says. Infantry meant sticking with the military for a career. With his high rank, he knew he'd qualify for a slot in Aviation. And Aviation--piloting helicopters--is a skill you can sell outside the military. You could even fly helicopters for the FBI.

And then the whole notion of service began to work on Whitey like a guilty conscience. He couldn't shake the idea that Aviation was a sellout move. For weeks, wherever he went, he felt two futures dragging over his head like a pair of clouds: he could be loyal to everything he'd always wanted or to all the things he might want. The weekend before branch selection, he got drunk at an Army football game, stumbled into a Porta-Potty--not one of religion's glory spots--and started praying. Basically, he asked God to pick the branch for him. "I was looking up at the sky, I was like, 'Someone, please, someone reach down and tell me what to do. How much do I sacrifice if I choose Infantry, and how much do I do for myself if I choose Aviation?'" Twelve hours left, he ended up drunk in Iggy's room. "Igs, this is it," Whitey said. "I'm doing it. I'm going Infantry."

"You sure?" Iggy asked. "I'm not sure you're sure."

But Whitey was the number thirteen-ranked military cadet, a man who'd never wanted anything except to serve his country in uniform. "This is why I'm here," Whitey said. "I may not like all of it, but I can do it, and I can do it good." Iggy nodded, said he supported him. The next morning, Whitey sat down at his computer, dialed up the branch selection Web site. Clock ticking, ten minutes to go. He kept trying to make himself type the word Infantry.

The Aura

West Point, the United States Military Academy, is a formation of chapels, playing fields, cannons and buildings on the banks of the Hudson River, fifty miles north of the first towers of New York City. The Academy has a single mission: take civilians, produce officers. You enter the Academy through a Military Police checkpoint and pass rows of stately granite buildings until you're on a green hill above the river. On a clear spring day, you can look across to the rolling treetops of the Hudson Valley, or upriver where powerboats leave creases on the water, and feel that God himself has issued you a uniform and notebook and sent you to one of the most crisply beautiful places on earth to study the practice of war.

When you look into Academy history, you keep bumping into America's history, as if the same story is being told two different ways. Just before his death in 1799, George Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton, "The establishment of a military academy [has] ever been considered by me to be an object of the highest national importance." Three years later, classes were in session by the banks of the Hudson. In its early decades, West Point trained officers to be engineers = men who squinted at rivers, cleared forests and laid the first bridges and roadways for America. Most officers you see in old-time photographs--wide hats, sweeping mustaches--were graduates: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War was an armed West Point reunion, old friends catching up by firing at each other. Out west, graduates like George Custer chased Indians. In World War I, General "Black Jack" Pershing (class of '86) exported West Point standards of bearing to Europe. (One French general wrote home, "Why, these Americans even die in neat rows.") World War II shaped up as a big overseas alumni project, with Generals Eisenhower (class of '15), Patton ('09), Bradley ('15), and MacArthur ('03) as leading class officers. General William Westmoreland (class of '36) commanded all U.S. forces in Vietnam. General Norman Schwarzkopf (class of '56) commanded all U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. When officers like Schwarz-kopf talk about the Academy, they don't say "West Point," they say "this national treasure we call West Point."

But with the Cold War one decade in the past, the Academy's history has ceased to be a useful guide for its future. (The military misses the old Soviet threat the way rich families miss the simple, pressing clarity of being poor.) What the military fears now is called the culture gap. By the final months of the Second World War, one in ten Americans was serving in uniform; that number today is closer to one in three hundred. When the draft ended in 1975, civilian culture and military culture shook hands, exchanged phone numbers, and started to lose track of each other; military theorists worry that most Americans have no firsthand knowledge of how their Army lives or what their Army does.

In its campaign against the culture gap, the Academy has retained a glossy New York public relations firm. It has also participated in a Discovery Channel documentary about service academies and allowed a TV crew--the same team responsible for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman--to film a pilot called West Point at West Point, in hopes it would do for the Academy what the successful series Pensacola: Wings of Gold has done for Navy flight school. (I have watched the pilot, which turns cadet life into sixty-minute story lines: hazing, binge drinking and the love that flowers between the ranks.) For the same reason, West Point invited Rolling Stone to the Academy; as a reporter I was granted unprecedented access to training, personnel, barracks and cadets. In all, I spent four years on post, to find out what kind of men and women would subject themselves to the intense discipline of West Point, and to discover what it means to attend the Academy during the most trying time in its history.

A West Point entering class is literally a high school all-star team. The median grade point average is 3.5; 14 percent are Eagle Scouts, 20 percent are class presidents, 60 percent are varsity team captains. Candidates are flagged from a long way off, like aircraft approaching on radar. The Department of Admissions boasts of having the most sophisticated database in the country: drop a line to West Point in the sixth grade and you'll receive correspondence from admissions every six months until you hit high school, when the rate doubles. More than 50,000 juniors open Academy files; from there, admissions becomes an endurance contest that produces 12,000 applicants, 6,000 physical fitness exams and 4,000 official nominations (from senators, congressmen, the vice president or the president); at the end, 1,200 cadets are left standing. (Even medical histories are fair game: if you have flat

feet, asthma, diabetes or any experience with Ritalin or antidepressant drugs, chances are you're out of the running.) The staff spends a careful forty hours with each file. Cadets receive an education that's famously valued at $250,000, and earn $600 in Army pay a month. Each year brings an unforeseen problem. In 1998, when Saving Private Ryan was sparking its resurgence of bystander patriotism at multiplexes around the country, the effect on West Point was very different. "We had a number of people call in and close their files after seeing the movie," says Colonel Michael Jones, director of admissions. "They couldn't make the leap that we don't fight those types of wars anymore."

Plebes spend their first summer at Cadet Basic Training--Beast Barracks--where they get soldierized. Five weeks of all the things you've seen in movies: sudden-death haircuts, buckle-shining, wall-jumping, scrambling cadets looking perplexed. Plebes report with underwear and a toothbrush; everything else is Army issue. After surviving Beast (the drop rate is about 10 percent), they enter a world where students don't even have the same names they do everyplace else. Sophomores are yearlings or yuks, juniors are cows, seniors are firsties. They join one of the Academy's thirty-two companies, in which every aspect of their lives is overseen by an adult officer called a TAC. (Each company is assigned a letter, number and name: there are the A-1 Apaches, the E-4 Elvis Lives!) They pledge to follow an honor code: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do." And their development--as they say at West Point--begins.