True Diversity in our Military Academies

This past weekend we celebrated the lives, and mourn the deaths, of those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of this, the greatest, most generous country that has ever graced our planet. Last weekend also happens to have seen the graduation and commissioning of the Class of 2018 from the United States Military Academy, from whose ranks over its 216-year history many of those fallen in our nation’s battles were drawn. That graduation ceremony was especially poignant for how well it illustrated the cross-section of America’s best and brightest who have answered their country’s call and shown a willingness to place themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us.

The image of these young men and women standing on The Hallowed Plain of West Point in their dress uniforms, ready to receive their diplomas and commissions as second lieutenants in the United States Army, is a picture of true, selfless “diversity.” They are black and white, Hispanic and Asian, Christian and Jewish, male and female, northern and southern, well-off and not-so-well-off.  They have all endured the same rigors and tests of confidence over four years that West Point has crafted in the span of two centuries to hone their cadets’ mettle and develop confident, capable leaders who feel a bond with each unlike any other produced by America’s university system, apart from its other service academies.

The First Captain of West Point’s Corps of Cadets for the academic year 2017-2018, the highest-ranking cadet in the cadet chain-of-command, who led the graduating class on the parade ground this weekend, was Cadet Simone Askew.  She happens to hail from my hometown of Fairfax, Virginia. She also happens to be African-American.  One does not achieve the rank of First Captain of West Point’s Corps of Cadets without possessing extraordinary abilities academically and physically, as well as genuine, demonstrated leadership skills identified in his or her years as an underclassman.  Second Lieutenant Askew and her family should be very proud, and we as Americans should be very grateful that she chose a career in the service of our country.

On graduation day, the junior class of Cadets (known, affectionately, as “Cows” -- one of those quaint, very old, yet loveable West Point traditions), were promoted to seniors (known as “Firsties”). To mark their new status, they are given red sashes and ceremonial sabers to be worn with their dress uniforms.

I’ve had the blessing of having a child among this new class of Firsties. He and his classmates were very proud of their red sash and saber, and justifiably so. They represent a tremendous amount of work, physical and mental, parties foregone that their high school friends who went off to “regular” colleges enjoyed, and a willingness to selflessly lay down their lives for God, country, and comrade, just as those whom we celebrate on Memorial Day have done. 

In this age when cynical politicians and grievance industry hustlers seek to divide us along racial lines, gender differences, economic backgrounds, and other superficial strata, I look at our service academies and see one of the great accomplishments, among many, of our blessed nation: Its ability to truly assimilate and meld people from all ethnic, religious, cultural and financial backgrounds in pursuit of a higher purpose.

In my son’s three years at West Point, his best friend happens to be a classmate of combined Chinese and Jewish background.  My son happens to be Christian and of German ancestry. Other of his friends include African-Americans, who were his roommates; sons of retired U.S. Army generals; and a brilliant “prior service” cadet, from a hardscrabble background, who saw meritorious action in Afghanistan as an enlisted man.  He counts many women cadets among his friends, some of whom he competed with on the Army swim team.

It is very easy in our culture today to become disheartened by those who would seek to divide us, perhaps for electoral gain, hoped-for reparations, favorable occupational and educational advantages, or innumerable other self-serving reasons. The notion that police officers would target black individuals for murder or that teachers would single out minority students for arrest, all based on the color of their skin, yet not supported by empirical evidence, is a notion repugnant to most Americans, but is a narrative that is inflamed by a media seemingly hell-bent on creating discord. After all, it drives ratings and readership.

As illustrated in this short video of the Class of 2018 graduation, all the West Point graduates celebrated their achievement together, tossed their caps in the air together, and embraced each other (regardless of identity group), when LT Askew dismissed them for the last time as United States Military Academy Cadets. What a wonderful representation of America. No other country on earth has achieved a level of integration of diverse people like America has, claims to the contrary by malcontents notwithstanding.

Finally, on this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to remember some West Pointers who joined the Long Gray Line, but lost their lives before they could celebrate graduation with their classmates.

My son’s classmate, Cadet Thomas Surdyke, gave up his life in June 2016, between his Plebe and Yuk years, while rescuing a swimmer caught in a riptide on Long Island, resulting in the posthumous award of the Soldier’s Medal to Cadet Surdyke. Tom now rests in the cemetery at West Point, alongside his fellow West Pointers.

Cadet Mitchell Alexander Winey, while attending Cadet Troop Leadership Training in Fort Hood, Texas, also in June 2016, lost his life, along with eight other soldiers, when their tactical vehicle overturned at a flooded crossing. The sacrifice made by those in our armed forces who die in the course of training is no less meaningful than those who perish in combat. They have knowingly chosen a dangerous profession, which requires training involving maneuvers, equipment and arms that are inherently hazardous. Inevitably, tragic mishaps occur, which makes the willingness of these young men and women to choose this vocation that much more meaningful.

Let’s enjoy our Memorial Day with picnics and pool parties, but let’s not forget the true meaning of the holiday: the celebration of those who gave their lives to make our freedoms and joyous celebrations with family and friends possible.

God bless America and her armed forces.

William F. Marshall has been an intelligence analyst and investigator in the government, private and non-profit sectors for over 30 years. Presently he is a Senior Investigator for Judicial Watch, Inc. (The views expressed are the author’s alone, and not necessarily those of Judicial Watch.)