No Mission Too Great: West Point in the Modern World

Photo taken from the Joseph Raskin Gallery of Etchings

In light of this week’s news events, I went digging into my emails looking for my grad school thesis. Having grown up outside the gates of the United States Military Academy, I chose to write about how, if at all, West Point had changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

It has been said that the two planes that crashed into the Twin Towers had crossed paths right over West Point as they traveled down the Hudson River. The Towers collapsed a mere 50 miles from the Academy’s gates. Yet I found, some three years ago, that the Academy’s mission remained largely intact.

A few notes: 1) My writing has changed dramatically, so I apologize for the parts where it gets pretty boring. 2). Who approved this? I feel like I could have done better (said with diploma in hand). Enjoy.


Folklore rules the mystery of West Point. There are harried ghost-soldiers that leave footprints in the grassy dew of the parade field in the middle of the night. In the basement of the massive white and gray mansion housing the United States Military Academy’s Superintendent, spirits of the Revolution sit and reminisce. Doors open and shut without people or wind, and figures march their way throughout the post, fading into the deeply gray mist.

But, the tales that affect the most cadets, and for that matter their weary mothers, are not the ghost stories. Most who enter the Academy know of this haunt, that the weather on every “Acceptance Day,” will determine the course of their lives forever. As the cadets prepare for their final march before the academic year, while they wait to shed the title “new cadet” and become known, somewhat mockingly, as “plebes,” they may watch the moving clouds overhead. Since 1802, every class that has ever experienced rain on this day has found itself in war.

In August 1997, the rain poured harder than recent memory. I was told it was the first time since the inception of the Academy that the Acceptance Day parade was called off. Four years later, 50 miles away, two towers fell to the ground. Ironically, on that day, there were no clouds.

The 206-year-old United States Military Academy sits at the banks of the Hudson River on the land of historic West Point, NY, which gained its fame as an important fort during the American Revolution. Roughly 4,000 men and women make up the Corps of Cadets; 4,000 students that attend the Academy and eventually graduate to serve their five-year active-duty commitment to the Army. This is the price they pay for their education.

The mission of the Academy reads as follows: “To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.”

Since its inception, West Point has striven to serve this mission with every cadet that passes through.

On September 11, 2001, the world was thrown into a new era: a modernity that involves weapons of mass destruction and the torture at Abu Ghraib; improvised explosive devices and the Global War on Terror. West Point, 50 miles from the island of Manhattan, was thrown into this era along with the rest of the world, its stone gates and building facades unable to protect it from something of this magnitude.

For 1st Lt. Matt Haith, himself a plebe, or freshman, in his third week of classes at West Point, the day of the September 11 attacks was “pretty hysterical…and not in the funny sense.”

From his domestic duty station in Ft. Campbell, KY, Haith recalled a sense of not knowing: not knowing who attacked the U.S., not knowing what lay ahead. He compared the event to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a time when classes were shorted, a cadet becoming a graduate, and an officer, in only two-years time.

“We had a mass-accountability formation, to make sure that everyone was there,” he said, “People were trying to call home, the phone lines were busy and people couldn’t get through for days…We watched 20 minutes of the TV, and then our professor gave a talk on how the world was about to change. And then we just went back to class.”

With his father a professor and head of the Ethics Department, Haith had already served two “tours” of West Point duty before entering as a cadet, having lived there twice as a child. On September 11, Haith saw a place he had known all his life deal with an international crisis.

“It changed the academic curriculum,” Haith remembered, citing the replacement of peace-keeping missions with classes like military development and counterinsurgency. But, “the biggest change was the focus of our military training. Once a week, we had a lecture from a general. It stopped being ‘if you get deployed’ to ‘when.’”

In her book Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point, Elizabeth Samet, a civilian English professor at the Academy, says she was one of few professors to go along with their syllabus that day, ignoring the television coverage and the image of the planes flying into the Twin Towers playing on loop. She even kept her plan to screen John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon with some cadets later that afternoon.

“Before September 11,” she writes, “life at West Point had been – there’s no other word for it – peaceful.”

Many people assume that, since that day in 2001, all the gates to West Point have become fortress-like. While this is not the case, security at West Point since September 11 is one of the greatest issues, and one of the greatest changes, that the Academy has had to deal with.

According to Charles Peddy, a contract anti-terrorism officer for West Point, during the days following the attacks, the installation went to what would now be called Force Protection Delta, or the highest alert possible. Under this threat level, special events are cancelled, the Academy’s visitors’ center is closed, every car is searched, and only “key and essential people” are allowed to enter. But, this level, according to Peddy, can only be sustained for as much as 72 hours, and only if an attack on U.S. soil is “imminent.”

Other Force Protection levels, which Peddy says are not related to the color scale put in place by the Department of Homeland Security, are Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Today, West Point operates mostly at a level of Alpha, or under the idea that there is an “expressed desire” to attack the U.S.

“There is one called Normal,” Peddy said during an interview at his home in Fort Montgomery, NY, not five miles from the center of West Point. “But we’ll never go back to Normal.”

West Point used its military police force and National Guard Reserve stationed at the Academy and surrounding area to man the gates in the days following the attacks, checking every car’s trunk, hood, and undercarriage. For the military police, or as their known on post, MPs, this was part of their expressed job. For the National Guard, it was considered Operation Noble Eagle.

Peddy, who was retired from the Army only two months when the attacks happened, said the strain on the MPs and reserve units once troops started to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq was too great, and they could not continue to guard the gates themselves.

In response to the strain, Congress authorized the use of contract guards for security purposes at military installations in 2003, but only temporarily. The Bob Stump National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 was passed to overturn a congressional decision in the early 1980s, which prohibited such an action because of reliability, quality, and control issues when it came to dealing with private security companies. The waiver has since been renewed twice and, according to Peddy, will not be looked at again until 2009.

“We are generally pleased,” he said, commenting on his work with West Point’s own contract security guards, first Alutiiq Security and Technology, and now Chenega Integrated Systems, both made up of retired police officers. He later added: “They bring a wealth of experience. A lot of them have been here for four years. They know the rhythm of this place.”

After September 11, the Department of Defense began to issue identification cards, known as Common Access or CAC, cards, different from the regular military ID cards. CAC cards and Department of Defense car decals were issued to military and civilian West Point personnel, to help identify who should and should not be on the installation.

“It’s an Army requirement, every ID is checked,” said Peddy, pulling both his CAC card and New York state driver’s license from his wallet. “And it has to be a government issued ID. Costco doesn’t work.”

Those with Department of Defense car and individual identification may enter any West Point gate with ease, according to Peddy, by simply handing over their identification and allowing the contract guard to quickly swipe his finger over the gold chip encased within the white plastic of the ID. If the bump of the chip can be felt, the ID is good, if not, it’s what Peddy calls an “inky” situation.

Those without the proper Department of Defense identification may still enter the installation, with some form of government identification, but those simply visiting, according to Peddy, are told to sign up for a tour. All entering the post are subject to search, whether it be of themselves or their cars and possessions, and they are only allowed through two of West Point’s three gates: Stony Lonesome and Thayer. Washington, the Academy’s western-most gate, may only be accessed by those with both car decals and CAC cards.

“It forces the person to stop and give up something of themself,” said Peddy. “It reduces the threat. You could roughly bring 500 pounds of explosives in a sedan. You can still bring in explosives [if searched], but not as much.”

When asked if privacy was a big issue, Peddy said the idea of searching individuals is not a problem at West Point.

“Entering the installation is tacit approval of being searched,” he said. “You have the option of giving ID, you have said it’s ok to check my card.”

However, in recent months, West Point contract guards have been told they cannot use the new “Mobilisa” technology. The handheld device, which is used to scan the barcode of government issued IDs, holds, according to Peddy, 10 to 12 databases of information; anywhere from the sexual predator list to West Point’s own barred-person database. If the machine blinks a red X after a scan, a person is refused access to the installation. Peddy said use of the device is on hold because of certain privacy issues, that it might be a violation of the Privacy Act. But his basic advice is this:

“If you didn’t want to be searched, don’t come on post.”

Peddy also heads up the RAMPs, or Random Anti-terrorism Measures Program, which runs checks that West Point is obligated to do, such as fully searching every 10th car that enters post during certain hours. But out of all of these measures, the one he has most trouble with is getting cadets into the fold.

“The results suck,” he said, of his “see something, say something” program. By putting a civilian into the Cadet Area, without wearing the proper identification, Peddy hopes that a cadet will in turn approach the suspicious party and find out what’s going on. But he has had trouble reconditioning the cadets’ psyche.

“Cadets are conditioned to see civilians,” he said, referring to the Academy’s large civilian workforce. Later he added, “if I could just convince somebody to see something and say something, I would be very happy.”

The civilian aspect of West Point makes security measures somewhat different from regular military bases around the county. While the post is West Point, the area is also the United States Military Academy, and a popular New York tourist attraction. With football games, graduations, parades and exercises, West Point has to try and maintain its good rapport with visitors and families, as well as meet the need for heightened security.

Peddy explained that at a regular Army installation, like Virginia’s Ft. Belvoir, a visitor attempting to gain access to the post must present a proper Department of Defense car decal and military identification. If not, the person is sent to a specific office, where they are asked to hand over their driver’s license and registration. After a check is run and the person is cleared, they are sent to another gate for car inspection. If, after all that, they do not have a specific reason for entering Ft. Belvoir, the person is asked to return to the visitors’ center.

To allow for the interest of civilian tourists, West Point uses bollards and reinforced curbs along the grass to ensure extra security.

“Before I got here, you could drive a car all the way across the grass to the barracks and blow it up,” Peddy said, without a flinch.

There are currently 400 cameras on post, 300 in the Cadet Area alone. West Point is one of very few military installations, according to Peddy, to be allowed a dog contract, for bomb-sniffing purposes. For graduation, Peddy expects the Coast Guard to be driving its boats up and down the adjacent Hudson River, and West Point maintains a “very good” relationship with the New York State and Orange County, NY police forces. But with all the precautions, Peddy still thinks it’s not enough.

“The guards are our second line of defense. The first line is intelligence.”

And at West Point, intelligence is a commodity.

While the Army has been criticized recently for allegedly lowering its standards for enlisted soldiers, West Point’s standards have remained the same, and its applicants have surpassed them.

“If your product becomes bad, you will suffer immediately,” said Joseph Tombrello, chief communications officer for the Public Affairs Office at West Point. “[Applications] shot through the roof. Standards keep going up. We’re getting the right student in here.”

According to the 2002-2003 West Point Course Catalog, the class of 2005, the last class to be admitted before September 11, was equally, if not less, qualified to enter the Academy than the class of 2010, which came to West Point in the summer of 2006. With higher mean SAT scores, more class valedictorians, and just less than 90 more National Honor Society members, the class of 2010, many of whom were in their freshman year of high school on September 11, 2001, seems better poised to matriculate at the prestigious Academy.

While more students applying for the class of 2005 were nominated to the Academy by a government figure, a requirement to get into West Point, over 50 more students qualified for acceptance in the class of 2010. More than 220 students were admitted to the class of 2010, and, in possibly the most unexpected statistic of them all, almost 10,300 students showed interest in the Academy for the class of 2010, about 400 more than their 2005 counterparts. That’s almost 400 more students in the class of 2010 who started applications for admission to West Point, five years after the September 11 attacks, and right in the midst of the Global War on Terror.

In addition, the Princeton Review, most likely the most-used resource for researching universities and colleges and the programs they offer, gives the United States Military Academy a selectivity rating of 96, out of a possible 99. To put that in perspective, the Ivy League Yale University also received a selectivity of 96, while one of New England’s best schools, the College of the Holy Cross, received a selectivity rating of 95.

Tombrello, a retired Army major who recently served in Iraq on a retiree recall, insists the Academy has not become any less selective since the country has gone to war:

“Enrollment is as high as they have ever been.”

Joe Dineen, author of the Illustrated History of Sports at West Point, worked in the Academy’s admissions office for 22 years, before retiring in December 2006. His job, graphic design and creation of the videos, advertising, and pamphlets that marketed West Point to the public, did not render him blind to the changing global community.

“Our strategy was to make sure that all students understood what they are getting themselves into,” he said. Reaching parents and students throughout the country, “we never tried to gloss over that.”

But, while working in his office located on the outskirts of the cadet academic area, better known as “Central Area,” Tombrello admits to changes being made over the years. While he says that the academic experience is unchanged (West Point still awards its Bachelor of Science degree to all graduates and still maintains its heavy engineering background), the Academy now has the ability to take things more in depth, and the changes that have been made have been “common sense ones.”

“West Point prides itself on putting out a pretty darn good product,” said Tombrello, who has been working at West Point for 14 years. “The basic product is not something that’s stagnate.”

He explained that the Academy has taken on a greater capacity to teach foreign languages like Arabic and Chinese, even though it already had these courses. West Point is doing more to teach international relations, and meet the world’s technological demand. With China growing as a world power, with New York State mandating that Spanish be taught in the classroom, and with the Muslim population rising, Tombrello is firm in his claim that West Point is simply meeting the needs of an evolving country and world.

“How much would we have changed had 9/11 never happened,” he asked. “Teaching people to think in environments that rapidly change – we’re going to continue to teach that.”

Militarily, according to Tombrello, the Academy has made some adjustments as well, while the premise of the training has remained the same.

“The basic foundation of military training is the same: small unit tactics, land navigation, the basics of being a soldier,” he said.

According to Tombrello, since the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan began, cadets have been receiving training in relation to what they would see specifically in that kind of environment. Cultural negotiating, dealing with women in the Muslim culture, religious differences, negotiating with tribal elders, and even something as simple as interviewing, are all taught with a Middle Eastern background. During their summer training, cadets are learning from recently deployed soldiers “bringing their knowledge and skill on the Global War on Terrorism back to the cadets at West Point.”

“There is a lot of experience here at West Point, both civilian and military, on the Global War on Terror,” Tombrello said. “There is an intellectual capital of West Point. It offers knowledge being used by the Army.”

1st Lt. Haith, who is a product of this training, has seen much of what was taught to him in his two tours in Iraq:

“Explosive devices are the number one casualty producer [in Iraq], they are concealed,” he said. He then went on to explain that Al Qaeda uses these casualties as part of their propaganda, videos of American deaths shown on Middle Eastern websites.

As a second lieutenant in 2006, Haith’s first tour was short-lived, and involved working route clearance. At 25, he is currently in Iraq serving his second tour, as an executive officer for his company. He is expected to be promoted to the rank of captain while in Iraq, before he returns sometime in December 2008, after 18 months overseas.

Firstie, or senior, Cadet Ian Norwalk is preparing to graduate in a matter of weeks. The 21-year-old New Mexico native is destined for a job in an infantry division, first in Ft. Benning, GA and then in Ft. Carson, CO.

“I always wanted to go to West Point,” he said over the phone from his room in the Cadet Barracks. When asked how many days he had until graduation, he replied, without hesitation, “thirty-nine.” But who’s counting?

Norwalk grew up far away from the stone walls of West Point, in Albuquerque. He freely admits that not a lot of people know what West Point is where he comes from, and that he feels cool describing what he does to people, like his brother’s friends.

But it doesn’t go unnoticed that Norwalk made a decision to join the military life when it was far from the popular thing to do. As a senior in high school, he applied to both West Point, and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

“But I thought that West Point was cooler,” he said.

Back in 1993, North Carolina native Michael Rainey made the same decision as Norwalk, to attend the United States Military Academy, although his reasoning was somewhat different.

“I initially chose West Point for the opportunity to play Division I basketball, in conjunction with the strong and well-respected academic credentials of the Academy,” he wrote in an extensive e-mail. “Although I understood the commitment to serve in the active-duty Army as an officer, I have to admit that fact did not weigh in as importantly as the other two in my decision to attend here.”

Rainey’s reasoning may have had something to do with the military climate of the early 90s, but that did not deter him from leading a military life. Now a major, Rainey has returned to West Point as an instructor in the Department of Systems Engineering, where he has been teaching since July 2006.

“I felt differently about the choice almost immediately after my arrival in June of 1993,” he said. “I was truly amazed at the people that I met and how much I wanted to be a part [of ] their team.”

Coming to West Point in the middle of a time when the country was at war, Norwalk knows no other experience at the Academy.

“You don’t really hear about [9/11],” he said. “It’s not so much the instigator, but more the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Later, he added:

“The emphasis is on going, you get sick of it after awhile. The officers are so serious.”

As an officer, Rainey defends this seriousness.

“I have no problem telling the cadets in my courses that the current demands on their time are far greater than my classmates and I faced in 1997,” he said. “They must continually balance their academic studies with ensuring that they plan, resource, and execute military training. These tradeoffs that force a cadet to establish clear priorities from competing demands was not as prevalent when I was a cadet.”

Norwalk, the modern-day cadet, disagrees. Asked if his experience at West Point has lived up to his expectations, he responded:

“In some ways it has and in some ways it hasn’t. I think I was seriously one of the last in.”

Worried that he would find all cadets in the Corps to be ambitious geniuses, Norwalk found he fit right in.

“Everyone here is a regular college kid,” he said. “Everyone puts things off ‘til the last minute. It’s kind of funny. Working with groups is a pain in the ass. The school is a lot easier than I thought.”

In January 2004, Maj. Rainey was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Over the course of his year in Iraq, he was the B Company’s 91st Engineer Battalion Commander and Aide-de-Camp to the Commanding General of the Gulf Region Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rainey was responsible for the neighborhood of Ghazaliyah, a suburb of Baghdad which he approximates to have about 70,000 people, and the reconstruction effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Norwalk, as a cadet, has also held some leadership positions, within the Corps. Because every cadet has to participate in a sport, whether at the intramural or varsity levels, he has taken to wrestling, and even coached his company’s team. In the first semester of his final year at West Point, he was leader of a platoon, a subdivision of a company. In his last semester at the Academy, Norwalk has chosen to be a squad leader. He considers his main function to be distributing information from his tactical officer to the rest of the squad.

As an instructor, Rainey is “continually impressed” with many of the cadets he comes in contact with. It is common for him to talk about his roles and responsibilities with cadets interested in learning more about their future careers, and making a decision about them. He described the cadets as “more proactive” in learning about the military as a profession, and applying their classroom instruction to their impending leadership positions.

“I see a shift in maturity level in cadets that I instruct,” Rainey said. “It seems as if they are more focused, for lack of a better term, than I remember being at the same stage in my career. It seems as if cadets are more willing to apply classroom examples to current situations, as they apply to Global War on Terrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“I will probably do five years and get out,” said Norwalk, referring to the five-year commitment each student must make in order to graduate from West Point without paying for their education. “I don’t know how much I’ll like the Army.”

While Rainey sees, “without a doubt,” an increased emphasis in military science education and training opportunities, Norwalk says impending service, and deployment, are not something most cadets keep at the forefront of their minds.

“It’s not something I look forward to,” he said. “Most people don’t have a blast.” But, “I still don’t think about it…I’m not apprehensive about it. Most kids don’t stress.”

In her book, West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet speaks to this feeling:

“Before September 11, decisions were always scrutinized against a distant backdrop of war; today, the argument for relevance seems even more compelling,” she writes. “It is no wonder that some officers recently returned from deployments believe that their primary mission is to teach cadets how not to get killed in Iraq. I understand this impulse, but you can’t protect cadets against death, no matter how thoroughly you train them.”

According to Rainey, every cadet must complete the same sessions on training that prepared him to be a second lieutenant in the Army. The same “mandatory training sessions” he went through before September 11.

“These skills will prove invaluable to them as they arrive, I believe, more prepared to train and resource their platoons as platoon leaders,” he explained. “However, I completely understand that well-executed training takes a considerable amount of time and effort for cadet leaders.”

“People respect the fact that you go [to West Point],” said Norwalk. “But I am really lucky. It’s so much better than what I could have done. It’s good being here. Cadets are lucky. We get stuff handed to us.”

For centuries, in the summer before their senior year at the Academy, cadets have been given their class rings in a ceremony at historic Trophy Point, overlooking the Hudson River. According to West Point’s Association of Graduates, “the wearing of the class ring of a graduated class of the United States Military Academy has long held a special significance to those who wear it. It is the symbol of the common and special bond among the graduates of the United States Military Academy and the ‘Long Gray Line.’”

On each ring is etched not only the motto of West Point, “Duty, Honor, Country,” but also the crest and motto of that individual class, something that keeps them in the tradition of the Long Gray Line, but also unites them as a class, in their own certain experience.

Because each class votes on the crest and motto early on in its West Point tenure, the class of 2002, the first class to graduate after the September 11 attacks, chose its motto “Pride in All We Do,” without terrorism and impending war as a backdrop.

However, the class of 2005, the class of 1st Lt. Haith, the class that was only in its first year at the Academy when the attacks took place, graduated under the motto “Keeping Freedom Alive.” The class of 2006 chose “Never Falter, Never Quit,” while the class of 2007 decided on “Always Remember, Never Surrender,” and etched in its crest is the United States Pentagon, surrounding the still intact Twin Towers.

This tradition has continued for over 200 years, and West Point still longs to keep its tradition, for it is a place rich in history, in the fundamentals of this country.

It is the place where Benedict Arnold fled from after being discovered a traitor. In the Old Cadet Chapel, a small board honoring the soldiers of the American Revolution bears more significance because it also holds Arnold’s name, scratched off, some 230 years ago.

West Point is the place where Edgar Allan Poe decided he didn’t want to be an officer, where General Douglas MacArthur decided he did. Where Gore Vidal was born, in the old hospital, now family quarters, and where General George Custer was laid to rest, only yards away.

West Point is the place where the “Great Chain” crossed the Hudson, stopping British ships from proceeding, and, in 1981, it was the place where the Iranian hostages were brought back to the states, the first time they landed on familiar soil.

And West Point is the place where a centuries-old mission to “educate, train, and inspire” selfless service strives to maintain its relevance in the modern-world.

On May 31, at 10 a.m., the United States Military Academy class of 2008 will march into graduation, united together under their own chosen motto: “No Mission Too Great.”

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