Sunday, December 06, 2009

Cadets left with 'a real clarity about our mission'

Washington Post

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- All 3,000 cadets remained standing in the auditorium, shoulders straight, chins high, hands clasped behind their backs. They had just listened to President Obama declare his plans for the Afghanistan war, an announcement that affected nobody more than them, and yet their bodies remained still and their faces remained stoic.

Only after the speech ended and the country turned away did the West Point cadets offer interpretations of their own: Here was a plan laid out by their commander in chief, and it was their job to follow it. But their emotions ranged from elation to concern, and Obama's decision to deploy an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has consumed their thoughts and dominated their conversations in the days since the speech.

Eric Bernau, in his final year at West Point, had reached out from the third row to shake Obama's hand, and he returned to his room on the first floor of the Ike Barracks eager to post photographs of the event on Facebook. He wanted to call family and friends and tell them about "the whole honor of being in that room with the president at such a key moment in history," he said. Only when he checked the messages on his cellphone did he realize his friends wanted to talk to him about something else entirely.

There were about 20 text messages waiting, some entirely in capital letters and others peppered with anxious exclamation marks.

"What does this mean for you?" one friend said.

"Will you have to go?" another wondered. "Are you nervous?"

"I came here to West Point for four years because I have one singular goal of serving this country while we're at war," Bernau explained, again and again. "If you're involved in sports, you don't want to spend all your time practicing and then never play in the game. It's the same thing for us. I always expected to go to war. I want to go. I'm honored to go."

Bernau had applied to West Point -- and nowhere else -- five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks precisely because he hoped to be counted on when it mattered most. He was the first in his family to join the military, leaving behind a worried mother with roots as a religious pacifist and a miffed group of friends who later bragged about their light schedules at the University of Wisconsin. But Bernau was captivated by the purposefulness of the Army and the cohesiveness of the West Point cadets. Once a high school class clown, he absorbed the seriousness of the country's oldest military academy: the gray uniforms, gray skies and gray stone buildings; the morning roll call at 6:50 and the lunchtime count at noon, all with a military band providing a drum roll in the background.

When it came time earlier this year for Bernau to select a military branch, he asked to be assigned to infantry, with a creed demanding courage at the "heart of the fight." He liked physical sports -- camping, hiking and mixed martial arts -- that he thought would translate well into fighting an enemy on the ground. He also believed that the most noble leaders earned respect by operating "at the tip of the spear," he said.

Long before Obama spent months deliberating the future of the Afghanistan war and brought his decisions to West Point, Bernau had contemplated -- and made peace with -- the potential consequences of the president's path. He was surrounded by the effects of war every day. It was the combat boots and military fatigues worn for Spirit Day each Thursday. It was the boxing classes and self-defense training required of each cadet. It was the alumni who returned to visit between tours in Iraq, some telling gruesome stories and others not saying much at all. It was the public announcements that preceded lunch in the mess hall when another West Point alum was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, bringing the total to 73. It was, as much as anything, the unblemished white headstones in Section 34 of the West Point graveyard, where so many of those 73 had been buried that there were plans to expand the cemetery and overtake an adjacent parking lot and coffee shop.

"You can't spend a day at West Point without being reminded what we're here for," Bernau said. "Everything builds toward that service."

Said Col. Mike Meese, chairman of West Point's social studies department: "There has been an incredible intensity here ever since 9/11. The cadets have a strong belief that this is the defining struggle of their lifetime. Every one of them elected to come here because they want to be a part of it."

Not long after the speech, Meese received a call from his son, Brian, in his second year at West Point, who watched Obama from the second-to-back row with a solemn face. Brian had spoken with his friends on the walk back from the auditorium to their barracks, and none of them could stop obsessing over one number Obama had highlighted in his speech: 18 months. The deployment of 30,000 additional troops was something they had expected -- it was the future for which they had prepared. But why had Obama so forcefully emphasized that he would begin a drawdown of troops in 18 months? What if the war was over by the time they graduated?

Brian Meese, the latest aspiring officer in a family with three generations of service, had prepared to fight in a war ever since he was 12. He had accompanied his father to almost a dozen military funerals, and each one strengthened his resolve. At West Point, he studied Arabic instead of Spanish, judging it more practical for a soldier destined for the Middle East.

"Now I might not get to go," Brian told his father over the phone this week, his voice betraying disappointment.

"I think you will still have your chance," his father said. "All of the evil in the world is not going to be defeated by the summer of 2011."

"You're taking care of Iraq. You're taking care of Afghanistan," Brian told his father. "What's going to be left for me?"

Many cadets had the same concern. Jon Schleef, a third-year cadet who had served in Afghanistan before enrolling at West Point, stayed awake in his room after listening to Obama and thought about friends still at war. "For me, it made me miss it," Schleef said. "It's such a privilege, being over there with a close-knit group of people. And now the president comes here to give us these orders, and there's a real clarity about our mission. I want to go back."

Arron Conley, class president, tried to answer more than 50 messages left on his computer and cellphone in the hours after Obama's speech. When he told old acquaintances that a likely deployment to Afghanistan struck him as good news, they acted as if he were speaking a foreign language. His mother had adamantly opposed his decision to leave junior college in California for the military, and now some of her old resentments had returned. Friends expressed concerns for his safety. A former classmate wanted to know whether there was any chance Conley could still avoid deployment.

"Some people are never going to get it, because the idea of somebody actually wanting to go to war just doesn't make sense to them," Conley said. "But look, this is what I do. This is who I am."

Eventually, Conley gave up explaining and returned to his routine: following an incremental series of orders that will lead to his deployment into war. After the speech, he turned out the light in his room at 11:30 p.m., woke up the next morning before 6, made his bed, shaved, dressed in his uniform, polished his shoes and shined the bathroom sink. He left his room just before 7 to join his regiment and stand in formation for the morning count. The cadets stood outside their barracks, shoulders straight and chins high, reporting for duty, one day closer to carrying out the president's plan.

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