“Cooperate and Graduate!” – West Point Life Lesson #4
Within my first week at West Point, I was already contemplating quitting and heading back home to Indiana. I was miserable. I was getting no sleep, I was exhausted. I did nothing right and was constantly being corrected and berated by upperclassmen. I was afraid, alone, and in utter despair. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I was just not cut out for this place. West Point had beaten me and I was ready to go home.
We would gather as a class several times a day to be counted and prepared for the next phase of our training for the day. On one particular afternoon I was excited, because we were being released to “Mass Athletics”. This was a time that we would breakout into sports, so cadets could try out for various varsity teams or have an afternoon of fun athletic activity to take our minds off the daily rigors of cadet life.
I was excited because, for the first time, I would meet up with the Cross-Country/Track Team, the reason I came to West Point in the first place. I had been recruited heavily by the Cross-Country/Track coaches. They even made special arrangements to get my appointment to the Academy when I ran into obstacles getting accepted to join the Class of 1995. Finally, on that hot summer afternoon, I would get a break from my temporary hell and get a chance to meet the rest of the freshman running class and a few of the upperclassmen that would soon become my teammates.
I was not disappointed. It was a fun and relaxing afternoon down at the Army Track & Field. My coaches treated me and the rest of the freshman class to all the junk food we could stuff into our eager mouths and hungry stomachs. It was a blessing and something that would help me get through the rest of the summer, knowing that I had Mass Athletics to look forward to every week.
That first day in Mass Athletics set the tone for the rest of my time at West Point when I met Jack Swift, my new teammate and fellow Plebe (freshman). His head was completely shaved, like mine, and he had that same “deer in the headlights” look that I had. I will always remember what he said to me with so much sincerity that I can vividly remember every word. He said “Look man, we are going to have to stick together if we are going to make it through this place.”
Jack had it rough. He was in A-1 company, notoriously known as being the hardest company at West Point and they were proud of that notoriety. He had been ruthlessly hazed since he arrived to West Point that summer and he looked ragged. In Jack, I saw a kid that was in utter despair, just like me, and it actually gave me comfort, because I knew I was not alone. I have never seen Jack like that since, but his words that day gave me comfort and I looked forward to meeting up with him every week so we could commiserate and help each other through our first year at the Academy. Jack and I became best friends at West Point and have remained close friends to this day.
“Cooperate and graduate!” is a motto we heard often at West Point. Every cadet learns early that if they are to survive the West Point experience, they cannot do it alone. Jack was the first of many significant and lifelong relationships I would make at West Point. I learned the value of cooperating with my classmates to survive at first, but to eventually thrive at the academy. In four short years, I went from a frightened boy from Indiana, to a strong and confident man that was ready to take on the world.
I graduated, not because I became stronger as an individual. I graduated because I became stronger through the bonds and friendship forged by cooperative relationships I made over four years at West Point. My graduating class, the Class of 1995 came to the Academy as individuals, but we left on June 3rd, 1995 united and strong. To this day, whenever I face a significant challenge, I know better not to face it alone and lean on my network of friends, colleagues, and family to help me find a solution that I could never create on my own. At West Point, I learned to “cooperate and graduate,” but now I “cooperate and thrive” in life. How about you?