March Back

Thank you for the Honor of Marching with you. The Class of 62 – Can Do.

2012 Class Crest

From Craig Mitchell, X-’62

An ex-cadet in the class of 1962, found in academics, a parent of a ’04 cadet, I want to share with other parents some thoughts on leaving West Point. These are thoughts about what I missed by not staying and what I endured after leaving.

From grade 2 to grade 12, I shared the same classroom with a boyhood friend whose Dad was a grad who survived Bataan to be killed in the mistaken sinking of a Japanese POW ship by U.S. aircraft. His passion for WP and its motto duty, honor, country affected me from an early age and by grade 9 became my goal as well as his. We both gained competitive nominations from our congressman and reported to WP on the appointed day. During the train ride to WP we shared an oath that WP would have to throw us out because neither of us would ever quit. I suspect that many others made a similar oath that day and countless new cadets have done so since.

I was a good plebe, shy, a little short of ‘spoony’, never in trouble, never on the area. I attribute all that I am to the good Lord and my Beast squad leader Ty Wilson ’60 and his roommate Bill Carpenter ’60. Surrounded by truly great role models in company like Peter Stromberg, Charlie Tennant, Bob Anderson,
Al Nordgren, Paul Miles and many others I couldn’t avoid being inspired to do well. Roommates Dan Buttolph and Dave Windom were my very best friends. I don’t recall there ever being angry words among us. We cooperated fully against the system and the of course, the TAC.

At mid-yearling year I was found in calculus. I had been is the mid-sections throughout the term and really wasn’t expecting to take the turnout exam. Seeing my name on the turnout list was like a direct hit in your foxhole.

It is the worst day of my life. Supe LTG ‘Gar’ Davidson had all ‘turnouts’ report to the east academic building for a briefing. Gar chewed on us for what seemed like an hour about our wanting out and purposely doing poorly so as not to quit. He assured every one of us that while we were ‘hot stuff’ in the present, we would be very sorry someday for our irresponsible behavior. I wanted to interrupt him to say “Sir, I’m sorry right now!” On my worst day, I never wanted to be anywhere else. On my worst day, I could look around at the gray stone and gray uniforms and thank God to be here. I dearly loved West Point.

February,1960 began a long dim period of regret. The ride home in the car with my Dad was silent. I had disappointed him only once before. I had the means to visit WP many times after leaving but it was too painful to even contemplate. A good friend and classmate in an adjacent company who was found at the same time had a different reaction. He couldn’t bring himself to leave: living alone in Highland Falls for months after his separation.

I had missed an entire scrapbook of experiences, beginning with two and half more years with my classmates, MacArthur’s address to the Corps, John Kennedy’s graduation address to our class, the postgrad weddings, shipping off to Vietnam, doing all the things with them I had started to learn how to do, being part of the LGL, being there for the return of my fallen friends and classmates. I missed 7 reunions. Yes, I did eventually master calculus, earn an engineering degree, serve 4 1/2 years in the active reserve, marry a loving woman and raise four marvelous children. But I missed that which was dearest to me and can never, ever be replaced.

I learned to carry with me two WP’s. One filled with memories of priceless friendships and endless challenges, the real one that I could no longer experience. The other WP I carried deep inside me. That WP consisted of the honor code, D-H-C, courage developed in those 19 of a possible 47 months, and a desire to serve my country in some meaningful way. The inner WP would be tested many times in the next 20+ years by a daughter born with a serious birth defect, my wife’s illness, two career changes, the savage murder of a close friend. This WP carried me through the best and worst of times.

In 1982 while living in upstate NY I met the famous, now departed, Hal Walker of the NY Society. Hal worked tirelessly at helping grads find quality employment after leaving the service at a time when to even think such things was considered by some to be seditious. A graduates role was to keep WP’s grads in WP’s army. Hal helped me not just learn but master and perfect the skills to make a major career change. Hal saw me as a fellow west pointer, graduate or not, and gave of his time and experience because there was still a bond, absent graduation, absent officership, absent class ring, the common bond was love for WP.

While I didn’t know it at the time, WP had provided the foundation for me to be a generalist. This is a distinct difference between WP and its sister academies that focus on producing specialists. Some see a generalist as someone who knows a little bit about many things and not enough about anything. Others point to the generalist as one who can explain the connection between two seemingly unrelated events. Hal taught me what I needed to know to make the switch from office technology to nuclear weapons and become senior program manager.

I was privileged to work directly with senior AF commanders and high level DOE managers on development, flight and underground testing and deployment of the MX reentry system and reentry vehicle. These RS and RV products house, tend, launch and deliver what is euphemistically referred to as the ‘physics package’ planting it directly on top its intended target at the end of very fast ride thru space. The objective was to make useless the best of the soviet ballistic missile fleet housed in its nuclear hardened silos hidden across the USSR. I needed everything I ever learned and more to succeed in this environment. The body of knowledge and experience came from many teachers and sources. The tenacity, the initiative, the ability to follow challenging directions, to take beneficial risks, to lead, develop and respect teammates all came from 19
months at WP. A graduate I respect once told me, ‘You know, you really get it all in Beast and Plebe Year.” I took as an enticing idea, but really too good to be true and therefore, not to be actionable intelligence.

I am ever thankful to then Cpt. John Costa, Instructor of Russian (later to become Col. Costa, Foreign Language Dept. Head) for teaching me just enough in three semesters to recognize and forever savor the essence of feverish como chatter that broke out and went up from the Soviet trawlers on our Pacific missile range when the first flight test of our new RV came in directly on top of the target after a 5,000 mile, 20 minute ride from Vandenberg. Loosely translated, I heard ‘Holy crap, our silos are toast!’ Similar transmissions followed the second test flight that removed any support for ‘The Yanks got lucky on the first shot’ theory.

In the end, a not quite ‘spoony’ plebe, deficient in calculus and unremarkable in most other things received the extraordinary pleasure of a significant event in the bringing to closure of our 40-year war. For this I thank the good Lord, WP and, of course, my Beast Barracks squad leader.

1982 also gave me the strength to return to WP. The AOG was beginning its outreach to the relatively small number of independent societies and to embark on a program of mutual understanding and support that has made unimaginable progress. A non-grad in the midst of the AOG was not the unobtrusive return to WP I was seeking. But there were needs to be met there. Our old ‘knife and fork’ society in Boston was being reborn at the hands of young, energetic, creative grads from the late ’60’s and ’70’s.

There were conferences and programmatic experiments to be implemented.
Parents as an organized support force hadn’t been invented yet. The AOG was in transition from a retired flag officers’ domain into a new coalition of movers and shakers from industry and commerce, and grads from almost every class year. And believe it or not, a lost sheep foundling of 20+ years was as welcome in the ranks as any grad. Why?, because of that bond and the belief that our academy needs all the wisdom, altruism, courageous leadership, and occasionally a few generalists to ensure its commitment to excellence and its very survival. The source of our leadership to win the nation’s wars cannot fail its people. The outcome of such a failure is unthinkable.

WP has been extraordinarily good to me. It permitted me to become an associate member of the AOG and to serve on the alumni support committee. In 40+ years it has become a vastly different place. But beneath the surface the core values persist and are stronger than ever. The support systems for cadets at risk are effective and multi-layered. The qualities that made John Costa stand out among P’s are now expected of everyone charged with instilling knowledge into the Corps. Dynamic, caring, available 24/7 sponsors have replaced the well meaning ‘Plebe Pop’. Cadets are saturated with available choices by which they learn to make responsible decisions affecting their time management and development. My era learned to choose between studying something and polishing something.

The point of all this is to give one man’s example of what just a small dose of the WP experience can manifest in a lifetime. The object is to suggest that no one should settle for the small dose when there is the opportunity for the complete treatment and a plethora of support to help one be successful. I believe that there is nowhere where one can go to experience a better training ground for one’s own life and for the service to the lives of others than West Point. There are no better people than the incredibly capable instructors and mentors who give selflessly to every cadet who indicates that they have a gap to be filled. There is no more fulfilling job than to serve one’s country in the United States Army, followed if circumstances permit in some other capacity in the defense of this great nation.

If you are considering leaving WP because you think the Army is not diverse enough to provide avenues of service in your specific area of interest, you are substantially misinformed.

If you think that the country does not adequately reward selfless service to the Nation, you do not understand the currency of reward that comes from doing the harder right for a grateful people.

If you think that some aspects of service life are too hard, you do not understand that it takes especially strong individuals of courage to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

If you think that the nation will be just fine without you, you play into the hands of our adversaries who celebrate every report of weakness in our resolve to defend our freedom.

If you think that defense of freedom is just another one of the many lifestyle choices facing young Americans today, spend 30 minutes with CNN.

In my humble opinion, young cadets who are seriously considering giving up on the building blocks of skills, experience and wisdom they are assembling within their individual personalities risk losing far more than they will ever find on another pathway. Yes, I made some use of the values that were given to me by dedicated people at the academy. But, I am fortunate to have received those opportunities. Having demonstrated the accomplishment and potential to be admitted, and having been confronted with manufactured adversity introduced solely to enable your own growth, to elect not to finish the journey so carefully planned and competitively secured may very well presage a continuing pattern of abandonment of mission that can be your inseparable companion to ones last days.

I make no argument for the partial WP experience. There is no doubt in my mind that more responsible and better decisions affecting my performance, resulting in the full 47-month dose would have been the infinitely more desirable outcome.
Beast and Buckner teach that you can exceed your limits to do far more than you ever imagined. Graduation opens the doors of opportunity and responsibility to exceed your limits as a way of life to the benefit of yourself, your loved ones, the sons and daughters entrusted to your stewardship, and the citizens of a grateful nation in a dangerous but promising world.

Be All You Can Be.

Craig S. Mitchell ‘x62’ Editor’s Note — Craig is a Classmate I never met, but the Cadets he refers to are names I do know. He is coming to our 50th?

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