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US Military Academy at West Point Celebrates 200 Years - 2002-10-18


In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation creating a Military Academy to prepare officers to lead the army of the new nation. The Academy was established at West Point along New York's Hudson River, strategically important during the Revolutionary War.

All 4,000 cadets, soldiers in training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, march in perfect order. They surround the dining hall with their "companies" in one of three daily formations.

Seniors, known as Firsties, lead the ritual that begins by taking note of how many cadets are missing.

Senior cadet Krysten Allan says it is rewarding to direct the formation as a rite of passage, reminding her of what she has accomplished. "It is very overwhelming," she said. "As you are here longer, you gain more responsibility and you get to be in charge of other people so it is neat when you get to be a senior. You are actually running the formation, making sure that all your subordinates are doing everything that they are supposed to be doing and are where they are supposed to be."

Learning discipline and time management skills is an important part of the Academy at West Point. During the four-year program cadets must balance equally rigorous academic, military, and physical training.

At graduation, cadets receive a bachelors of science degree and are commissioned as second lieutenants for five years of active duty as U.S. Army officers.

Ms. Allen says the Academy's rich history in creating U.S. leaders convinced her to apply. "It really shapes them for success, whether it is military success or success in the business world," said Krysten Allen. "It just teaches you so much and that is exemplified in the history of it. Just looking back at Macarthur and Patton to Schwarzkopf. There are so many great graduates you know that it must be something that the institution is doing."

Two U.S. Presidents, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower are among the alumni of West Point. Other famous generals who attended West Point include Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate forces during the Civil War, Douglas MacArthur, who led U.S. forces in the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Commander of the Central Command during the Persian Gulf War graduated from West Point in 1956.

West Point remains the oldest continuously garrisoned U.S. Army base. It is situated on a stunning curved bank of the Hudson River, north of New York City.

General George Washington first set up an outpost there in 1778. Although the British never arrived, Washington had fortified a narrow section of the Hudson River and suspended giant chains to stop British ships and maintain control of the colonies.

Academic dean, Colonel George Forsythe, a West Point graduate, says the Military Academy followed a French model of emphasizing engineering to develop the new army and the nation's infrastructure. "It was an attempt to democratize the officer corps," he said. "To prepare officers who would be loyal to the [U.S.] Constitution and the [U.S.] President and then develop in them the expertise that was necessary to both lead the army, protect the nation, and as the nation called upon the army to protect it during its growth and expansion. "

Colonel Forsythe says that like the Army, the Academy at West Point has changed with the times.

Women were first admitted in 1976, and more than 15 percent of the student body is female. Many cadets come from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds and represent more than a dozen countries.

As the face of war in the United States has changed, so has the curriculum at West Point. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the faculty added new courses on South Asia and Islamic Law.

Courses on information technology, counter-terrorism, and conflict resolution were created too.

But West Point's mission has not changed.

General Douglas MacArthur, who later became a superintendent at the Academy, reaffirmed the goal to train skilled and dedicated officers in a 1962 speech. "Your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolate," he said. "It is to win our wars. Your guidepost stands out like a tenfold beacon in the night. Duty, honor, country."

West Point officials say it is hard to assess the long-term impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Academy. But they say a growing number of cadets are choosing assignments such as infantry, where they are likely to serve in areas of conflict.

According to senior Anthony Woods, the attacks altered his perspective and that of many of his fellow cadets. "With September 11th and the War on Terrorism we are realizing that now there is something that we are fighting for," he said. "There is something that we have to prepare for, therefore all of us have upped the level of seriousness that we take our studies, our physical development, our military development. Because in a very short time, many of us, we are going to be out there leading people in this War on Terrorism."

Mr. Woods, a political science and economics major, anticipates a military career after his five years of service, although he is not ruling out a future in business.

He reflects on his decision to apply to West Point, despite the difficult application process that includes receiving a nomination from a member of Congress. He says he never expected to graduate during a time of war. "I was aware and I respected the fact that there was a possibility of going to war," said Anthony Woods. "I was not afraid of being in the military and having to serve in a dangerous environment. I definitely did not imagine I would be serving in a military that is at war though. That is something that is a complete surprise, but looking back, had I known I do not think my decision would have changed at all."

Meanwhile, Anthony Woods says he is trying to enjoy his final year at West Point. As a senior he has earned privileges, and travels often to New York City on weekends to go to clubs and movies.

Despite the hard work at the Military Academy at West Point, there is still time to relax with friends, especially on Fridays.

After the lunch formation, all 4,000 cadets run into the mess hall. In a spirited show of solidarity similar to that on other college campuses, these young soldiers in-training are getting ready for Saturday's football game.