West Point Reception Day turns civilians into cadets

(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 second 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.)

By JUDY KOCAB
Contributing Writer

(Part II of an occasional series)

WEST POINT, N.Y. — The summer day dawned comfortably cool and the scenery was spectacular in the Hudson River Valley. But the 1,300-plus young people descending on the United States Military Academy that morning were not thinking of the scenery. They were with their families to report for Reception Day, the first day of what was hoped to be long military careers.

They came with mixed expectations of what this day would be like. They’d read about it, talked to older cadets, and heard stories from graduates — would this be as expected? Or worse?

Hurry up and wait

It was the Army, so everyone was worried about being on time, especially those with the bus driver who was lost. Then, they nervously waited and waited.

The first step was a briefing of what the schedule would be like. The candidates would be going through many processing stations while the parents would have tours and opportunities to become acquainted with West Point buildings, the staff and programs.

All of a sudden, after more than a year of preparation it was time. The youths had 90 seconds to say goodbye to those who accompanied them.

For some, the parents were trying to encourage the candidates; for others, it was the other way around. For some, there were tears; for others, stoic, short farewells.

Then, it began. After the shortest bus ride of their lives, the mostly teenagers just out of high school went from being easy-going civilians to “Do not speak unless spoken to” new cadets.
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No turning back

First stop was Thayer Hall, where they received medical exams, completed physical agility tests, changed into Army T-shirts, shorts and socks.

Reminiscent of Halloween, they traveled down a long line of tables, holding open their duffel bags while workers dropped in uniform shoes, socks and other items until the bag was possibly 40 pounds.

Then came possibly the most important stop of all: Signing the papers to officially enlist in the Army. A lawyer from the Judge Advocate General’s office carefully reviewed the contract with each group and answered questions.

Each candidate must understand the commitment he or she is making: No cadet can be married nor have any dependents during their time at West Point. And they agree that once the third year is started, they owe their country five years of service whether they graduate from West Point or not.

From Thayer, they hustled to keep up with the upperclassmen to the barracks area. Along the way, they passed anxious parents who waited in the one place permitted, hoping for a glimpse of their child.

But even mothers found it was difficult to recognize their sons in the new cadets’ very short haircuts, and none dared a sideways glance.

Class is in session

At West Point, leadership skills are learned and practiced early. At the start of the second year, each cadet is assigned at least one plebe (first year, or fourth class students) to mentor.

The third-year cadets do most of the work of basic training, overseen by the seniors (first class) and regular Army officers. The new cadets are the privates; sophomores, the corporals; juniors, the sergeants; and the seniors take turns with company, regimental and brigade responsibilities.

On “R-Day,” the new cadets were directed mostly by the members of the third class. They led the new cadets from station to station, from getting hair cuts to the tailor, to teaching the proper ways to salute and march.

When not moving, being measured or taught something, the new cadets stood with a special handbook in front of their faces, memorizing information because at any time, they could be asked to recite a passage.

Put to the test

The upperclassmen hounded the cadets if they didn’t move fast enough, stand straight enough, or recite correctly. The process is meant to put the youths under pressure, to see if they could keep their composure under stress.

As the hours passed, the cadets’ faces still had expressions of nervousness and determination, but also confusion and exhaustion.

A few will decide that this life and challenges are not for them. It’s not unusual, by the time basic training is over, for about 50 individuals to decide the Army is not how they wanted to spend the next nine years.

Forward march!

By 5:30 that afternoon, all the families were lined up for the oath ceremony. Once the military band passed, eyes and cameras strained to get any glimpse of their child.

In less than 12 hours, the civilians had been transformed into 1,300 soldiers-to-be. The hours of practice paid off as the cadets, now in white uniform shirts and gray pants, smartly marched in their companies to swear allegiance to the United States and the Constitution.

Against shouts of “Brian, we love you!” and “We’re proud of you Sally!” the new cadets obeyed the “Right face!” and “Forward march!” commands. Parents followed, as close as permitted, until the new cadets were swallowed into the cavernous Washington Hall.

Soon they will march on the same fields as the Generals Grant, Schwartzkopf, Pershing, Bradley and Patton did while at West Point. They will face the same challenges as did two U.S. Presidents, dozens of astronauts, the builder of the Panama Canal and more than 44,000 other graduates who became part of the “Long Gray Line.”

(The next installment in this series will feature “Acceptance Day,” which occurs in mid-August.)

Read earlier installments in this series:
Part I: Ohioan accepts the West Point challenge, July 29, 2008
Part III: Acceptance Day at West Point, Sept. 25, 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

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