My roommate John turned out to be a prior-service soldier who’d just finished a year at the Academy’s Prep School, getting his grades up so that he would be able to compete with a bunch of high school heroes once the Academic Year started. If R-Day or Beast Barracks ever fazed John, I never saw any sign of it. I don’t know if they put me with John because his last name was near mine alphabetically, or if somebody somewhere thought that maybe I would need a little extra help with some of West Point’s overarching military bullshit. John was a huge help, and I was extremely grateful for it. However, we came from radically different pre-Academy backgrounds, and so we didn’t hit it off immediately—not in a deeply personal way at any rate. We got along well enough, but I think my shell-shocked military stupidity and ongoing emotional numbness must surely have tried John’s patience. He was a few years older, and he’d already been through Basic Training and had served in the Regular Army. The last thing he wanted, I can well imagine, was to deal with a barely eighteen-year-old newbie who didn’t know his head from his ass. However, he taught me as much as he knew, and for that I was extremely fortunate.
|Me and my friend Keith during one of Beast's "ice cream socials".|
It's maybe worth noting that I got down to about 140 lbs from a pre-Beast weight of 155.
I became aware of my squad leader as an individual for the first time shortly after that first parade. We marched from the Plain, West Point’s parade field, directly into the Mess Hall, where my squadmates and I sat family-style around a massive ten-seat wooden table. Cadet Stephen Reich was a good-looking guy with a brown buzz-cut and a decidedly athletic build. He reminded me strongly of my friend Danny G__ from Fallbrook, and I could tell at a glance that he was a good dude away from Beast Barracks just from watching him interact with his fellow squad leaders. That they all loved and respected him was obvious. However, Cadet Reich wasn’t looking for love from his new cadets, nor did he go light on his criticism of my squadmates and me at the dinner table that night. He yelled at us for folding our napkins wrong, for taking big bites, for cutting our cake incorrectly, and for a million other nitnoid, minuscule things. By the time I got back to my room that night, I was ready to hide in my closet until reveille the next morning.
Reich, it turned out, was arguably the best pitcher in Army Baseball history.23 He would go on to play for the Baltimore Orioles and for Team USA at the World University Games before returning to active duty in 2003 following the invasion of Afghanistan. He was killed in action in 2005, and his number has since been retired by Team USA Baseball. My immediate impression of him was of a strong, good-looking guy who had all the Academy crap down, but who nevertheless managed to take it not-overly seriously. He was by no means easy as a squad leader, but he cared much more about teaching our squad the things that we needed to know than he did about making us all miserable. He could have made our lives a living Hell, but he wasn’t that kind of guy, thank God.
But Beast Barracks was a tough slog. I’d tried to talk to my father a little about what military life was like, but I hadn’t had the right mindset to actually hear what he’d said in answer to my questions. I’d wanted to talk about the intangibles of military leadership and other high falutin’ notions that stood light years removed from the day-to-day experience of Cadet Basic Training. Dad, by contrast, had tried to teach me things that I actually needed to know, like how to shine my shoes. Little things like this were what made Beast Barracks miserable. I could handle the physical training—easily. It was the military bullshit—shining my shoes, learning “plebe knowledge,” wearing my uniform correctly, and that sort of thing—that made me feel like an idiot all the time. My father had seen how this was going to play out and had been content to let me enjoy my last few weeks of freedom in peace. He could have been an asshole about it. Instead, he’d let me do my thing in my own way. This was an incredible gift. In the moment, though, I became angry with him, mad that he hadn’t tried to push me harder to actually prepare. I felt betrayed by how ignorant I was. I could have done a million little things to make my life easier by increments. Instead, I’d stayed focused on the Big Picture. Beast was not a Big Picture kind of place, though, and I suffered because I could not refocus.
My first full day started fine. We got up at five, formed up, and ran down to the field house for our first Cadet Physical Fitness Test (CPFT). This was in no way different from a standard Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), save that the standards were higher because West Point cadets tended to be much, much fitter than were Regular Army soldiers. Also, the Academy used a device called a “clicker board” to measure push-ups. This was a lacquered piece of two-by-four mounted with nylon straps to a wooden plank; your push-up counted if your chest hit the board hard enough to make it click. This ensured each push-up had the proper depth, but it also made the CPFT quite a bit harder than the standard APFT.
I did seventy-seven push-ups, ninety or so sit-ups, and ran a 12:15 two-mile, a personal best. My performance was good, even by West Point standards, and I expected that it would be noticed. It was not. I wasn’t actually special; I was merely used to being special because I’d once been able to do a few things well back in high school. Cadet Reich wrote our scores down in his book, and that was the end of it. We ran back to the barracks without fanfare.
This was how it went for the first week. I wasn’t a particular screw-up, but I was by no means an outstanding new cadet, either. I could handle the physical challenges, but so could everyone. Similarly, our upperclass cadre wasn’t there to make us feel good about ourselves just because we’d met one particular set of military standards. West Pointers were expected to excel. I did well enough physically but struggled to get the military parts down, and this made me at best a middling performer overall. But the emotional difference between being a high school hero and a West Point zero proved personally profound.
Beast Barracks has its own emotional rhythms. R-Day is a shock, and the next week sees an emotional descent as new cadets slowly adjust to their emerging reality. They’re used to being winners, but now they can’t win. Everything they do is wrong, often for the first time in their entire lives, and even spectacular successes are no more than the expected result. Many feel hapless and lost. The shock wears off about the time that the first full week ends, but in its place is left a lingering hopelessness. This hit me full force.
This is my life now, I realized. I signed up for this.
I struggled to process my reality. It was not so much that any one day was hard. There was no one moment where I thought, Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to do this. Athletically, I was the equal of anyone. I took ass-chewings without losing my composure. I got to know my squadmates, did what I had to do, and survived. But did I want this? I could have gone to Harvard and spent my time drinking beer in Cambridge pubs or reveling in the glory of swimming with would-be Olympians. Instead, I’d gone into the Army. Success at the Academy was truly hard-won, extraordinary people were commonplace, and there was almost no way to stand out in a positive light. I found myself locked into an ever-grinding reality of being told what to do. I didn’t appreciate the lesson that West Point itself was trying to teach, that it wasn’t about me at all.
I needed to stop thinking about myself.
The Army was and is a team sport.
I’d spent the last eight years racing as an individual, seeing the bleachers filled with cheering fans who often couldn’t wait to tell me how amazing I was. I’d gotten too many trophies and had too many people pat me on the back. My mindset wasn’t right, and if the Academy was ready to recalibrate me, that didn’t mean that I was myself ready to be torn down and built back up in a different way. I’d not listened to that crucial R-Day advice, to take it one day at a time. Instead, I sat staring at the next four years as a single block of infinite misery. I couldn’t make myself believe that I would slog all the way through it.
On the eleventh day, I asked for and received permission to call my parents. I dialed their number and broke down immediately, saying, “Mom, Dad, I hate it here. I want to come home…”
My dad didn’t say anything. Having already watched his own mentor’s son wash out of Annapolis, he must surely have known that my quitting was a distinct possibility. He’d held me aloft as a baby, proclaiming to the God of Battle, “Behold! A warrior comes forth!” But the truth was that we were different men with very different mindsets. We always had been. Dad loved the military; it was all he ever wanted. That was never true for me, and in that first week, I lost perspective about the choices that led me to West Point in the first place.
“It’s okay, Danny,” my mom said. “You can come home if you want. You can quit. We’ll come and pick you up if that’s what you want.”
“Okay,” I said.
But we left it like that. We didn’t make any firm plans one way or the other.
My mother meant to be supportive, but her words were not what I needed to hear. What I needed, I got from John when I got back to our room some fifteen minutes later.
“What the fuck do you mean you want to quit?” he asked hotly. “What the fuck is wrong with you?! Goddammit, I’ve got friends from the Regular Army who aren’t here right now because you’re taking their spot, and now you want to quit after less than two weeks! That’s fucking bullshit, man! What the fuck?!”
My mouth fell open, and for a long moment, I couldn’t speak. I hated John just then, but I’d also never felt more ashamed. I just stood there, quietly hanging my head. Thankfully, the exchange happened just a little before Lights Out. I fell asleep to numbed exhaustion despite all that lay on my mind.
I still felt ashamed the next morning. We formed up by squads for physical training (PT), but with John’s words still ringing in my ears, I couldn’t quite bring myself to say anything about quitting. I thought about it a lot over the course of that day, but somehow the time just never seemed right. There was always too much to do, and anyway, I didn’t want to disappoint my roommate. By the end of the next day, I’d realized that there was never going to be a “good” time to quit, and that I was never going to make a spectacle of myself forcing the issue.
A depressed kind of acceptance settled over me. I started hanging out more with my friend T.G. Taylor24, a direct-admit like myself who’d been a cross-country runner in high school and a standout cyclist. We talked wistfully about quitting over the course of those next few weeks, but in the end, neither of us ever got particularly close to actually leaving. All we did was talk. But I needed those talks. In some ways, those talks and John’s tough love did more to get me through Beast Barracks than I did myself.
In the end, Beast Barracks was never about me. The Army is a team, and classmates are family. Those guys did what they were supposed to do. Eventually I realized that I would need to find a way to pay it forward.
I struggled through the rest of that summer. I bolo’ed Basic Rifle Marksmanship, gasped and spit and spluttered my way through tear gas at the dreaded “gas chamber”, and finally managed for the first time to feel like something less than a complete imbecile when we took a class on knots and basic first aid. I slogged through the highlands of the Upper Hudson Valley with the rest of my platoon when called upon, carrying a rucksack and a rifle, and I was happiest whenever the brute physical work of the Army took us out of the spit-and-polish Hell that was garrison life for an untrained new cadet. Gradually even this gave way to something like normalcy, as I slowly learned the basic “knowledge” that is the cultural heritage of West Pointers everywhere. “How’s the cow?” and Benny Havens and The Corps. Beast Barracks was far more mentally challenging than physical, and several weeks passed before I felt like I’d even begun to wrap my mind around it all.
But sometimes winning isn’t winning in an immediate sense. Sometimes winning is just persevering to stay in the fight.
We marched out to Lake Frederick, the weeklong encampment that ended Beast Barracks, on a cool, drizzly Upstate morning in early August. The day started with a twelve-mile road march with packs and rifles, though I personally wouldn’t have minded marching another twenty. My class entered Beast in 1991, in the wake of the first Gulf War. The Army’s trucks were all still over in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that summer, and as a consequence, we marched everywhere. This left the lot of us in imminently good physical condition. The march out to Lake Frederick was meant to be the summer’s climactic physical challenge. But with all the marching we’d done already, most of us found it anticlimactic, though welcome in the sense that it took us out of garrison.
We went up the final hill and began the descent into the encampment area just as the sky opened up. Cold, hard rain drenched the lot of us, though it tapered as we dropped our rucks. We sat in a long loose line, now soaked and bone-weary. In true Army fashion, we found ourselves in hurry-up-and-wait mode. After hours of hard marching on a deadline, we suddenly had nothing to do. The sudden change in both temperature and activity level left me shivering. My teeth chattered. Down below, we saw trucks arriving at the bottom of the hill.
T.G. said, “Come on, man, let’s get some coffee.”
“I don’t drink coffee,” I replied slowly.
“Dude,” he said, “your lips are turning blue. Let’s get you something warm to drink.”
I followed T.G. down the hill to a little staging area where a few enlisted soldiers were slowly setting up the evening’s chow lines. A set of wooden folding tables stood behind a series of camouflaged green deuce-and-a-half Army cargo trucks, each with several of the Army’s ubiquitous brown plastic coffee dispensers standing in a row at the end. The dispensers themselves were little more than insulated plastic boxes with handles molded onto their tops, each containing three or four gallons of coffee or hot water. Black plastic taps were embedded into the front of each one.
I grabbed a white Styrofoam cup and followed T.G. to the nearest dispenser, pulled the handle, and let steaming black coffee stream down into my cup. I’d started shivering on the walk to the trucks, so I spent a long moment with my hands wrapped around my cup, letting the coffee’s warmth soak into my fingertips. I sniffed, and the steam kissed my face. Then I took a sip, and that was it. The coffee was bitter but hot and eminently pleasurable. My entire body warmed from the inside out. For the first time in weeks, I realized that no one wanted anything from me.
I sighed happily, looked over at T.G., and said, “Thanks, man. This is good stuff.”
In fact, it was the most delicious experience I’d ever had in my life.
T.G. and I spent fifteen or more minutes just standing there, looking up at the lines of our classmates, who were only then starting to set up their tents dress-right-dress in long military rows. The morning’s rain slowly gave way to sunshine, and I realized that I was happy, truly happy, for the first time in what felt like a very long time.
I began at last to see what was beautiful about West Point.
24. T.G. Taylor is still helping people, as a 2016 article from The New York Times Magazine makes clear. https://nytimes.com/2016/12/28/magazine/afghanistan-soldier-ptsd-the-fighter.html