The Cadet Prayer at West Point calls upon God, “Searcher of human hearts,” to help these future soldiers live above “the common level of life,” to choose . . .
. . . the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice, and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.
When you get to know cadets at the United States Military Academy, as my wife and I have had the privilege to do over the last four years, you are impressed by how thoroughly they take the prayer to heart, how dedicated they are to “Duty. Honor. Country.” (the academy’s motto), and how respectful they are of its blade-sharp honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
My older son, Robert Bradford Miner II, graduated from West Point on Saturday and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
My wife and I checked into the Thayer Hotel on Wednesday, since graduation festivities at West Point are pretty much a week-long affair. But unlike some visiting moms and dads of Firsties (West Point-speak for seniors) who may have been visiting the base for just the second time – the first being the weekend four years ago when they brought their son or daughter to the academy for Cadet Basic Training (aka “Beast Barracks”) – I have been to West Point scores of times (once or twice a month since 2005, including lots of football games), so I passed up some of the many Grad Week activities, which gave me a chance to spend time at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Chapel, in prayer and with West Point’s chaplain, Fr. Edson Wood.
Fr. Wood has been a chaplain at the Academy for sixteen years. I asked him for his impression of the cadets and military staff who are among his parishioners. “They are,” he said without hesitation, “the greatest people I’ve ever known.” I also asked if there were many weddings planned for the weekend – historically the various cadet chapels have hosted post-grad nuptials (cadets may not be married) by the score, one after another.
“Not so much these days,” he said. “We have three scheduled, but graduating cadets don’t jump into marriage the way they once did.”
Because we’re at war and each of the new lieutenants will head to either Iraq or Afghanistan sometime in 2010?
“Yes. And that weighs on them. War and death are constantly a part of their realization of destiny.”
From my own experience, I know the academy staff makes sure – from the first prospective-cadet visit, through the complicated application and nomination process, and finally at acceptance and admission – that every new cadet and parent know that we are at war, we are likely to remain at war, and, as soldiers, West Point graduates will go to war.
For my wife, the most emotional moment came when she and I pinned Bobby’s gold bars on his first Army uniform, but that wasn’t what got to me. And it wasn’t the famous hats-in-the-air moment of graduation itself. For me it was at the final cadet parade on Friday.
As the rest of the Corps of Cadets marched away, back to the great stone barracks, the thousand Firsties remained alone on the wide expanse of grass known as The Plain. The music played by the Army Band echoed around the barracks arches, so that you thought you were hearing the answering sound of marches played by ghosts, welcoming the Class of 2009 into the Long Gray Line that reaches back to 1802 and beyond. Most of the rest of the Corps bore rifles on their shoulders; the Firsties carried swords, which glinted in the sunlight and made a most remarkable, martial sound as, regiment by regiment, the cadets sheathed them in unison. At one point, there was silence but for the drums and clicking cameras and, here and there, the sniffling and suppressed sobs of family and friends.
And I thought: Why am I crying now? And I realized: Because these noble men and women live by the highest ideal of all, self-sacrifice.
As the Cadet Prayer concludes:
Kindle our hearts in fellowship with those of a cheerful countenance, and soften our hearts with sympathy for those who sorrow and suffer. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point in doing our duty to Thee and to our Country.
To which all of us (fathers, friends, and Americans) may say a hearty, “Amen!”
Oh, and “Hooah!” too. God bless all our honored dead, and also our newly minted soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen on this Memorial Day.