(Editor’s note: Weston Boose, a 4-H’er from rural Norwalk, Ohio, and son of Terry and Mary Lisa Boose, is starting college life at the U.S. Military Academy. This is the third article in an occasional series by contributing writer Judy Kocab on Boose’s first year in the academy, where the battlecry of “Duty. Honor. Country.” still rings.)
(Part III, the final installment of an occasional series)
Do teachers still have students write, “What I did this summer”?
For Weston Boose, of rural Norwalk, Ohio, the most difficult part of the assignment would not be to come up with enough interesting things, but having too much to write about.
June was typical — graduation parties, sleeping in, 4-H camp as a counselor and going to Cedar Point with friends. But on June 30, the fun and freedom stopped.
For them, “R-Day” meant buzz haircuts, shorts and T-shirts, and carrying heavy duffel bags that became filled with assorted clothing and equipment.
As they hurried to the many processing stations such as medical exams and physical agility tests, upperclassmen were constantly “in their face” hurrying them, correcting something, asking if they had memorized the new cadet handbook yet.
For most, this is the worst day of their four years at West Point — long, hot, tiring and confusing, a test of mental composure under pressure.
Weston knew the day would not be easy. There was more yelling than expected, but fortunately no time to spare for “drop and give me 50.”
About 12 hours later in the summer dress uniform, before proud and some tearful families, they recited the oath for the United States Army.
Basic training began in earnest the next day, at 5 a.m. reveille, then physical fitness exercises for more than an hour before breakfast at 7:30. Training and classes were all day until 9 p.m. with breaks for lunch and dinner.
The upperclassmen eased up a little, but did not get friendly; quick to correct actions such as a cadet not having his helmet or rifle with him at all times in the field. An oversight like that could easily result in death in combat. The cadets were not allowed to forget that they were training for warfare.
It is said that hazing had begun after the Civil War so cadets at the academy could let veterans coming in know who was in power and to “toughen up” the new members. It continued for more than a century.
To survive the physical and emotional abuse became a rite of passage, and those who stayed turned on the new classes after theirs.
The novices were subjected to demeaning names, strenuous, unreasonable tasks, even denied food and sleep. The drop-out rate was often 40 percent. Some graduates still believe the hazing was good, once they were past it, saying “steel is forged in fire” — teaching a cadet how to function under great pressure.
Finally, Gen. John Abizaid, a 1973 West Point graduate, became Commandant in 1997. Realizing that having new cadets in a state of constant fear was not the way to treat nor teach future leaders, he finally decreed there would be no hazing.
Such actions would never be acceptable once they became officers out in the Army. An officer has to show respect to get respect.
The new cadets were grateful not to be hazed, but basic training is also called “Beast Barracks” for a reason. They were kept busy every minute of every day. They were challenged with learning military skills and developing physical fitness beyond what any football coach would dream of.
Weston related that experiencing the gas chamber was something he hoped never to do again. The mountain climbing and rappelling were a welcome change from the first days of lectures and academic testing.
He especially enjoyed the field exercises such as the one rope bridge where each cadet had to pull himself across the water using only a harness attached to a rope pulled taut over the span. They also had first aid training, bayonet practice, orienteering and night patrols.
At home, they were at the top of the world, the winning athlete, the scholar, the best and the brightest. Now they were equal. The 300-pound quarterback, the 5-foot-2 female and those in between were equal.
Size, past accomplishments, race, nationality, religion; none of this mattered to the upperclassmen in charge of the new cadets.
It is said that no cadet gets through West Point alone and this starts with Beast Barracks. Each, with their strengths and weaknesses, was forced to go beyond any imagined comfort level to overcome physical and mental obstacles by working together as a squad.
They had countless opportunities to make mistakes, learn from them and succeed. In the months before admission, the new cadets were given detailed instructions on how to prepare for the upcoming physical demands.
Weston was grateful he had consulted some on the school’s track team and followed their advice. The new cadets who did not “break in” new shoes, nor condition themselves had regrets on the first 2-mile march.
Still by the end of the 6 1/2 weeks, Weston was proud to report that more than 99 percent of the new cadets passed the required Army physical fitness test.
The last ordeal of Beast Barracks was the 12-mile march with full combat gear back to West Point from the training areas after a five-day bivouac.
After the most exhausting time of their lives, they had to look sharp, because at the end of the march would be some of the families and all the upperclassmen. They wanted to make a good impression.
Along the march back, the new cadet companies were joined by West Point graduates of the Class of 1962. This gave an opportunity for the new recruits to learn what cadet life was like 50 years ago and what their future may involve as officers.
These alumni would become a part of their four years at different events and at graduation, provide the second lieutenant bars for the class of 2012.
Finally trooping onto the post, there was pride in having completed two major hurdles of being accepted to West Point and then surviving Beast Barracks. However, different challenges loomed ahead.
There were now three times the number of upperclassmen to scrutinize their uniforms, behavior and ability to memorize military and other knowledge. The start of the academic year would bring very demanding schedules and college classes as well as every cadet being required to participate in at least one sport.
There were fewer new cadets than reported on “R-Day” — maybe 50 less. Some decided that while they would choose Army life, this was not the way to get into it.
Others found the military was not at all for them. A few, despite their best efforts, could not finish the 6 1/2 weeks. One young lady suffered a tom ACL, but was offered the option of returning next year to try again.
The highlight of the day was the Acceptance Parade. The new cadets came onto “The Plain” in their basic training companies, facing the rest of the cadets, then upon command, marched to join their new companies, each comprised of a mixture of all four classes.
They were no longer new cadets, but officially accepted as part of the Corps of Cadets of the United States Military Academy.
While still about the lowest form of life on the post, they were now fourth classmen, “Plebes.” They had joined the historic “Long Gray Line.”
Another reward of completing the basic training was the chance to spend a few hours with family and friends, away from the vigilant supervision and discipline of the upperclassmen.
Parents found their son or daughter the same as they left them June 30 and yet different. There was a new air of confidence and accomplishment.
Weston’s father, Terry, thought it was “awesome that for all the youths had been through, they were still smiling.”
Parents were impressed with the camaraderie among the cadets, for they shared an extremely demanding summer.
One mother did note that in 18 years she could never get her son to fold his clothes the way he did that day.
Not many teens could write an essay about their summer that would include helicopter rides, live grenades and rifle marksmanship. How many could have the pride that came with successfully facing so many mental, physical and even social challenges?
It is a small percentage of young people willing to volunteer for such a difficult time as a step toward the goal of becoming an Army officer, of serving their country.
We should be grateful that so many are willing to make these sacrifices, and for all the military academies for the dedication and training. These leaders of the United States armed forces determine the fate of our nation and thereby the world.
(Judy Kocab is a freelance writer who lives on a farm in Ashland County.)
Read all the installments in this series:
Part I: Ohioan accepts the West Point challenge, July 29, 2008
Part II: West Point Reception Day turns civilians into cadets, Aug. 5, 2008
Part IV: Made it to Christmas! A plebe’s life, Feb. 5, 2009
Part V: Plebes graduate from the Long, Gray Line, May 21, 2009