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West Point: the Basics

Did you know the school allots scores of slots for eligible Guard Soldiers? Here’s a quick tour to get you started.
The members of the class of 2016 joined “the long gray line” when they graduated and commissioned as second lieutenants on May 21. Photo by John Pellino
The members of the class of 2016 joined “the long gray line” when they graduated and commissioned as second lieutenants on May 21. Photo by John Pellino

West Point is just like any other college. Sure, it’s on an old campus, but it’s still made up of dorms and dining halls. It’s just that in 1779 this campus happened to hold the headquarters of General George Washington—who regarded West Point as the most important strategic position in America. 

And, fine, some of the greatest military leaders the Army has ever seen have graced its hallowed halls. (And Edgar Allan Poe.) It’s just that this college happened to be founded in 1802 after legislation written by Thomas Jefferson. 

Like every other higher learning institution, it has a history. It’s just that West Point’s includes a role in the American Revolution. 

If you attend here, you get an education just like anywhere else. It’s just that West Point has more total Rhodes Scholars than all but three American universities, incorporates engineering classes into your curriculum no matter what your major is, and boasts some of the most accomplished alumni in the country.

So bring your A game. 

Every year the United States Military Academy at West Point allocates 85 student slots for the Army National Guard and Reserve. Yet every year some of those slots go empty. Here’s why you should apply for one of them, and what to know about one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

THE CAMPUS

West Point gets its name from the military installation where the university is located. It’s about 50 miles north of New York City, tucked away inside a bend of the Hudson River—too far from the city to be accessible by mass transit, but a comfortable drive through the ancient-feeling old-growth forests of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area.

Driving through the West Point gate, you notice most of the installation’s buildings are typical Army construction—just a little older and prettier. 

The university’s buildings, however, are spectacular. If they only had a moat surrounding them, they would have to be called castles. Buildings in the inner cadet area are constructed primarily of stone and are connected by paths and driveways that wind through the campus, often up and down hills. 

The grounds surrounding the cadet area are dotted with remnants from its Revolutionary War past. Fort Putnam, constructed in 1778 on a hill overlooking West Point as a strategic defensive position, has been completely renovated, giving touring visitors a hands-on look at what the installation’s early years looked like. Redoubts and batteries that date back to the George Washington years still stand watch on the hills overlooking the campus. 

Decades-old buildings stand among the students, like the superintendent’s quarters (built in 1820), the commandant’s quarters (1821) and Professors Row—a line of housing built sometime in the 1820s that traditionally has been occupied by the heads of academic departments. 

World-class facilities are also plopped in the middle of the historic ones. West Point serves as the Army’s main athletic arm, and its teams have gyms, fields and practice facilities fit for the school’s 25 NCAA teams. 

Classrooms are mostly standard college lecture halls, although the quality of research and science facilities would be surprising to anyone not familiar with West Point’s status as one of the top engineering schools in the country. (U.S. News and World Report ranked it No. 3 in 2014.)

Towering over all the ancient-looking buildings is the Protestant Cadet Chapel, one of three chapels on the grounds (the Catholic and Jewish chapels are the others). Built from native granite and dedicated in 1910, the Protestant chapel melds Gothic structure and shape with a massive scale that evokes medieval fortresses. Its huge sanctuary has hundreds of intricate stained-glass windows adorned with West Point-isms, like “Duty, Honor, Country,” the Academy’s motto. 

Many of the windows were donated by previous graduating classes, imbuing the chapel with a physical lineage to the past—a historic theme that runs throughout the university both literally and figuratively.

JOINING 'THE LONG GRAY LINE'

The Sons of today, we salute you.
You Sons of an earlier day;

We follow, close order, behind you,
where you have pointed the way;

The long gray line of us stretches,
thro’ the years of a century told

And the last man feels to his marrow,
the grip of your far off hold.

— A stanza from “The Corps,” a beloved West Point poetic hymn 

If the architecture of West Point evokes a time past, the student body lives it, as each new class embraces its status as the latest in a long line of exceptional student bodies. 

West Point’s long list of illustrious alumni features Presidents Grant and Eisenhower and a who’s who of Army heroes, including Generals Custer, Patton, Abrams, Bradley, MacArthur and Schwarzkopf (all pictured below). Every year, a small number of foreign students also attends the school—a contingent that included José Figueres, who served a four-year term (1994–98) as president of Costa Rica. Some civilians known for feats outside the Army, like Buzz Aldrin and Mike Krzyzewski, graduated from here, too. 

The vast majority of the students at West Point come to the school with no military experience. Applicants have to be 23 or younger on July 1 of the year they enter, so there aren’t any old Army Vets in the halls. Most are fresh off the civilian bus, with Reception Day (R Day) being their baptism into the Army way of life. And it’s not an easy one. R Day is, like many first days in the most challenging Army courses, a difficult experience specifically designed to set a tone for the new cadet candidates. 

Senior cadets deliver most of the day’s instruction, crafting a high level of stress by the usual combination of yelling and unreasonable demands, like asking the cadets to recite a prescribed statement that they’ve been given only a short time to memorize. By the end of the day, when cadet candidates step on the parade field, they have a new appreciation for what stress can feel like, and what it can do to a person. 

R Day is the first day of a six-week Basic Training program for would-be cadets. During the program, cadets have limited interaction with the outside world, are asked to perform at their physical and mental peaks at all hours of the day, and are indoctrinated into the West Point way. Even after making it through Basic Training, cadets have only just begun the struggle to graduate. The extreme restrictions continue through the first year and into the second, as cadets slowly gain privileges—like weekend passes or permission to drink caffeine or chew their food more than three times. 

NATIONAL GUARD CADETS

If any of the students have a leg up on their fellow cadets, it’s those with prior service. “Experiencing Regular Army Basic Combat Training set me up for the most success here,” Cadet Lisa Canak says. She was awarded one of the 85 slots the Academy had available for Reserve and Guard Soldiers this school year. “Being under the leadership and direction of a drill sergeant, I gained a new sense of discipline and motivation I hadn’t had before,” she says. That military awareness paid off when she was hit with a million things as a new cadet, leaving only the West Point-isms for her to master. 

Canak joined the Nevada National Guard as an all-source intelligence analyst with the 757th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. She enlisted in 2013 and says she never thought she’d end up at West Point. 

“Financially speaking, I thought an Ivy League school was out of the question for me, since my test scores may have been good enough for admittance but not good enough for, say, a full ride to a civilian Ivy League,” she says. “The Guard’s program absolutely inspired me to shoot for something I thought was an opportunity [that had already passed me by]. It gave me a more realistic shot at the caliber of education I’ve always desired, as well as an opportunity to be surrounded by other hard-working individuals.” 

Cadet Jordan Isham was a 31B military policeman with the Vermont Guard before he applied to the Academy through the Guard program. He joined the Guard as a junior in high school and went to Basic Training before his senior year. Despite a highly successful high school career and a lifelong desire to go to West Point, Isham wasn’t admitted after his first application through the Guard program. 

“I still remember the phone call with the admissions officer that afternoon,” he says. “I remember because I try to write in a journal every day, [and I still have] the journal entry from May 17, 2013: ‘This is the most significant day in my life. I was not accepted to West Point.’ ”

At the end of that journal entry, Isham wrote: “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” On his second application attempt the following year, he was accepted.

“I think the best thing about being a student is the opportunity to excel here, and the relationships you build with other cadets,” says Cadet Hollis Shoptaw, another National Guard Academy entrant and a former 88M motor transport operator. Maybe only in the Guard would a former truck driver have a shortcut to an Ivy League–caliber education. That’s the beauty of the Guard’s relationship with West Point. 

“I never considered myself equal to those who I thought normally attended West Point,” says Shoptaw, who found out about the West Point application program through the Georgia Army National Guard’s state education officer. “Once I found out the USMA allocates slots for prior service Soldiers, I knew I could get in.”

 THE LIFE OF CADETS

Cadet life is incredibly demanding, with nearly every moment of the day programmed for classes and inspections and other tasks. But Cadet Zachary Matson, who joined the Iowa National Guard as an 11B during his junior year of high school, says he gets plenty of support from his cadre. 

“I think one of the best things about being a USMA cadet is the proximity we have to resources that are there to help us,” Matson says. “My barracks are within sight of the gym, the academic building and the library. My instructors are always available for assistance, and they are as enthusiastic about my development as I am.” 

There are over 100 clubs for cadets to join, ranging from sports to academics to hobbies like fly-fishing or yoga. Cadets are required to participate in extracurricular activities, as the university values well-rounded graduates above all. Bookworms need not apply, nor should meathead weightlifters. Only renaissance men and women graduate here. 

One day in April 2015, a couple hundred USMA cadets volunteered to run a Special Olympics program on campus. Shoptaw, Isham, Canak and a company’s worth of their fellow cadets spent the day mentoring Special Olympians, as the cadet-run event put on dozens of sporting events for the special-needs athletes. The event was a perfect reflection of the “new Army” of cadets, but it wasn’t new. Cadets have run a similar event every year since 1975—and it’s another in the long list of worthwhile traditions perpetuated at the Army’s greatest officer-producing school.

THE NEW 'GREAT CHAIN' 

USMA history nerds love to tell a story about the role West Point played in the Revolutionary War. General Washington had determined that its location on the entrance to the Hudson River was crucial, and engineers were tasked with maximizing the strategic advantage this location afforded. 

If British ships were able to sail up the Hudson, they could deposit troops or supplies deep behind American lines. To keep this from happening, a huge iron chain was manufactured and installed across the river, from the anchoring area at West Point to the opposite bank. 

This Great Chain, along with West Point’s American patriot contingent, was successful in destroying any British ship that presumed passage into the Hudson’s waterway. This allowed American forces to control the entrance point to the heart of the new nation and ensured the colony’s dominance of the American northeast.

The outpost’s position in Colonial history played out in an even more crucial way, albeit unknowingly, when Benedict Arnold offered control of the site to his British counterparts. His offer was eventually intercepted, leading to the discovery of Arnold’s treason. 

Today, West Point’s cadets are the perfect descendants of its most American of beginnings. Like the links of the Great Chain, forged of hardened iron, crafted by patriots’ loyalty to an upstart nation’s ideals, and set at a crucial entryway to the country, the graduates of the Academy are deployed at every critical bend in the world’s river. They’re standing watch at every important outpost, commanding many of America’s most important units, tasked with continuing the watch that West Point’s forefathers started.


INTERESTED IN APPLYING?

If you’re interested in applying to West Point, email the academy’s admissions department at admissions.soldier@usma.edu, call 845-938-5747 or visit USMA.edu.

 

ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS

National Guard applicants must meet the following criteria: 

+ Be a U.S. citizen

+ Be at least 17, but not older than 23, on July 1 of the year entering USMA (or not older than 22 on July 1 of the year entering USMAPS-United States Military Academy Preparatory School)

+ Be unmarried with no legal dependents; pregnant applicants will not be admitted

+ Be medically qualified by a medical examination review board

+ Be a high school graduate or have a GED

+ Be of high moral character and never have been convicted of a felony by a civilian or military court

+ Submit official scores on the standardized ACT exam or the SAT with writing test

+ Be nominated by the applicant’s commander

+ Be eligible for re-enlistment

+ Have completed Basic Combat Training prior to admission