West Point of Today vs USMA of 55 Years Ago

On the following pages, I have put together the text of a talk I gave at the dinner on the final night of our 55th Reunion. It includes everything I covered then, plus some more information that I either didn’t know about at the time, or that I had to delete from my talk in order to make the time limit I had been given. In addition, I have made a few corrections to what I had said. As I note in the following text, this is a fast moving train, and what is true at West Point today is not necessarily going to be true tomorrow – and even today’s truth can be quite different depending upon the perspective of the person from whom you obtain it.

I hope that you will find it an interesting and even enjoyable read.

Grip hands!

Bob Stevens

West Point of Today vs USMA of 55 Years Ago

Talk presented by Bob Stevens, at the 55th Reunion of the Class of 1957, 22 May 2012

My job tonight is to drag you into the 21st Century (many of you reluctantly, if not downright kicking and screaming).

Let’s start with a simple one: Did you know that we have been enjoined to never again refer to our Rock-bound Highland Home as USMA – henceforth, we must only call it West Point. They had Madison Avenue do a study on the subject, and determined that no one, beyond a five mile radius of the place, knew what the hell USMA stood for (although 38% were pretty sure that it had something to do with the Marine Corps).

On to the matter at hand: I tell folks that the only thing even remotely similar about West Point today vs USMA of 55 years ago, is that the cadets still wear gray uniforms and live in gray buildings. Other than that, it is a completely different institution. But I hasten to add that I firmly believe that, with just a couple of exceptions, it is a vastly improved one.

1) Let’s go back to the very beginning, to Beast Barracks:

59 years ago: we spent 2 months just learning how to be plebes. We didn’t really begin learning how to be soldiers until our stay at Camp Buckner, a year later.

They finally figured out that learning how to be a plebe wasn’t all that hard – after all, how many times do you have to be told what a gross, sorry excuse for a human being you are, before you get the message?

So they cut that part of the training program down to about a week -- and then spend the rest of the summer giving the new cadets much of what we got at Buckner – with Buckner itself now being an advanced course in soldiering, together with branch orientation.

And, BTW, the rest of the summer comprises only five-and-a-butt more weeks. They still start in early July, but end in mid-August, rather than early September.

Why the mid-August start to the academic year? So that the first semester will be over by Christmas leave. This way the cadets don’t have to spend Christmas worrying about facing WGRs when they get back (which, BTW, are no longer WGRs – they are now TEEs [Term-End-Examinations]). But you’ll be happy to learn that WPRs are still WPRs (one of the few things that hasn’t changed).

Speaking of Buckner, did you know that sophomores are no longer called yearlings -- they are now “yuks” (meaning either “young upper classmen,” or a play on the acronym “yuppies”, i.e., “young upwardly-mobile cadets” – however, no one seems to know, for sure, the derivation of this new acronym).

2) The next major change is …

No more Branch Orientation boondoggles -- being flown around the country for three summer months, being treated as if we were some sort of still-wet-behind-the-ears VIPs.

So what do the cadets do with their other two summers these days?

a) Well, just as we did, they spend one of the available four months conducting the activities at Beast barracks or Camp Buckner. Except that they now do this either Cow summer, as cadet sergeants; or Firstie year, as cadet lieutenants and captains.

And this change in rank structure carries over into the academic year. Plebes are privates. Yuks are all PFCs at Buckner, but are then promoted to corporal upon returning to post (serving as assistant squad leaders, mentoring Plebes [one-on-one], etc). Cows fill all the sergeant positions, and Firsties are either lieutenants or captains.

And there are a lot more captain slots these days – for example: the First Captain has a whole gaggle of additional captains on his staff -- do you remember, at our 45th reunion, the Cadet Captain for “feeling good about others” (or whatever his title was)?

The fact is that the First Captain now has a total of 20 captains on his staff: one 6-striper (his deputy), 10 ea 5-stripers (his XO and 9 staff officers), and 9 ea 4-stripers (assistant staff officers). [adjutant, supply, training, academics, athletics, morale/welfare, environmental concerns, PAO]

Think about it, Vuono – these days, even you could have boned a stripe or two.

Now I ask you, does the Tactical Department know leadership talent when they see it, or what?

[NOTE: Carl was in attendance; and he told me two things:

• He doubts that he would have gotten any higher in cadet rank, even under the current system.

• He recently met a cadet who told him that he was now a “legend” at West Point – it seems that the Tactical Department tells all the cadets to keep their hopes up, even if they don’t make cadet rank above the minimum. And they cite Carl’s record to prove that there is hope for absolutely everyone.]

b) OK -- Back to Cow and Firstie summers, the other three months are spent however each individual cadet wants to spend them!

• There are schools they can attend (like Jump School, Air Assault School, Underwater Demolition Training, etc). And if they complete the course successfully, they will be awarded the appropriate badge/patch.

• They can go be a 3rd LT anywhere in the world (and if you get your jump wings Cow summer, you can be a 3rd LT in an airborne outfit Firstie summer).

• They can go on staff, from battalion to just about any office in the Pentagon.

• They can serve in various government agencies; for example the Peace Corps. Do you remember the female cadet who got a Soldiers Medal for going back into the burning US Embassy in Nairobi to pull out injured folks; and then kept going back in, to do it over and over again? She was in Kenya on one of her cadet summer duty tours.

Speaking of cadets going overseas, the Academy is planning on trying to get every member of the Corps to a foreign country for at least one activity during his/her four years at Woo Poo.

One such activity is Bernie Loeffke’s Friendship Program, which sends cadets to China to teach English and preventative medicine in remote villages. If you are looking for a place to specify that all or part of your annual donation to the Academy is to be spent, you might want to think about this one (it’s where mine goes each year, now that we are no longer trying to beef up our Class gift fund). Specify the “General Loeffke Friendship Program.”

4) On to Academics.

59 years ago:

… we all took the same curriculum (with a choice of five languages, one of which was of dubious value, at best – unless, of course, you had taken Spanish in high school and were looking for a soft touch).

This uniformity, some will argue, was part of the bonding process that brought us together as one. We all had the same experience: the same military training, the same physical grind, and the same academic rigors.

But what about the classmate who had just graduated from Stanford? For him, and a lot of others, let's be honest: it was a huge waste of time.

Today: You can validate any core academic subject at any level, by passing a test. Whereupon, you can skip that subject. You can effectively skip just about all of plebe year, most of yearling year, and much of the last two years, as well.

In lieu thereof, you have a world of information and skills that you can master.

So how do they do it?

1. First of all by using Civilian Instructors. You may remember that, even way back in our time, about 25% of the instructors at Annapolis were civilians. Well, a few years back, Congress decreed that this was, henceforth, to be the rule at both West Point and the Air Force Academy, as well.

Frankly, I was dubious about the wisdom of this move. But I have to admit that it has turned out to be a big plus. These people bring with them a vast wealth of knowledge and experience, which even the smartest Army officer cannot possibly assimilate in the two years that future instructors are given to obtain their advanced degrees. So, in our day, we were simply not equipped to provide:

2. … all of the Electives that these people can produce -- truly advanced lessons in a wide range of subjects, some pretty esoteric; from quantum mechanics, to astrophysics, as well as a wealth of cultural/historical/governmental/technical subjects, together with a few of the more complex languages, such as Chinese and Arabic.

The Social Science Department, alone, offers 55 electives.

3. Multiple Majors. While we all majored in Military Engineering (whatever that is), the Academy now offers a total of 45 Majors (+/-, depending on how you count them) – from Geospatial Information Science to Nuclear Engineering; from Comparative politics to Kinesiology.

And what has been the upshot of all these changes? Most of you probably know that Forbes Magazine recently rated West Point as the absolute number-one college in America.

But did you also know that one of the criteria considered by the selection committee was (are you ready for this?) -- the percentage of graduates who had a full-time job within two months of graduation…..

But let’s not be picky here – number one is, after all, number one!

A couple of other changes in the world of academics:

a) In 1979, they abandoned the 3.0 grading system, and went to standard letter grading (i.e., F to A+).





Slide rules were replaced by electronic calculators


Electronic calculators were replaced by personal computers


Desktop computers were replaced by laptops

5) On to marching, drill, and p’rades.

Today they do very little marching – and it shows! They are not nearly as sharp as we were. But this is because they don’t do nearly as much of it as we did – they simply don’t have the time. They are much too busy doing substantive, useful things. And as a result, I suspect that they get a whole lot less red-boy time than we did.

There are only 5 to 6 brigade parades each year, as well as 5 to 6 double-regiment parades (on the Saturday of home football games) – remember that a double regiment is half of the four-regiment Corps. So the average cadet is going to march in only about 7 parades per year.

Another factor is that they no longer populate the cadet companies based upon height. So, even when they are standing still in ranks, they look more ragged – and it certainly doesn’t get any better when they start moving.

6) Next, let’s talk about athletics.

Of course, they still have Corps squad -- with the addition of women’s teams.

They also still have intramurals –

… but in addition they have added a whole bunch of “club sports,” 29 of them, anything from Martial Arts, Sport Parachuting, Cycling, to Inline Hockey, etc – and my favorite: Close Combat Competition (which sounds like pretty grim business; but what we are talking about here, folks, is … the Cadet Paintball Club).

A small portion of funding for Club Sports comes from appropriated funds. Another increment comes from the profits of cadet activities such as the Book Store, Cadet Store, the Grant Hall cafeteria, and the First Class Club. However most is from donations through the AOG.

In addition to getting a grade in PE, as we did in our day, today’s cadet is also graded in his/her sports participation. They receive a Character Through Sports Index (CSI) grade for their athletic participation each season, regardless of which variety of sports they participate in.

The Director of Cadet Activities opines that cadet participation in these three varieties of sports breaks out at roughly at 22% Corps Squad, 62% Intramurals, 15% Club Sports.

As a side note: in addition to Club Sports, the Directorate of Cadet Activities manages roughly 90 other clubs - 42 Academic Clubs (Model UN, Debate, Foreign Language and Culture, etc.), 13 Religious Clubs, 19 Support Clubs (Glee Club, Howitzer, Theatre Arts Guild, WKDT Radio Station, etc) and Hobby Clubs (Hunting, Fishing, SCUBA, Ski Club, etc).

7) The Honor System is the next subject; and it is a key one:

There have been significant changes to the Honor system. The overriding difference is that lying, cheating and stealing no longer inevitably result in immediate dismissal. This change was driven primarily by the results of a study, which concluded that demanding virtually automatic dismissal:

• increased toleration of violations,

• inhibited cadets from reporting comrades,

• led to questionable acquittals by the honor boards.

So now, the Cadet Honor Boards can recommend a punishment less than dismissal. An officers’ board will review the case and make a recommendation to the Supe, who is empowered to exercise “discretion,” and pass out a less draconian punishment than recommended (or he could even decide to override a lesser punishment, ordering dismissal instead).

Probably the most severe non-dismissal punishment is that the cadet must join the Army as a private soldier, and serve in a unit commanded by a USMA graduate. This commander will mentor the cadet for that year, at the end of which he will send a detailed report to the Supe, presenting his opinion as to the readiness of the ex-cadet to return to the Corps. Then (usually after personally interviewing the cadet), the Supe will make a determination as to whether to allow him/her to return.

The recent record has been that only about half of those found guilty have been dismissed.

8) Here are a few odds and ends that were changed; but the changes didn’t last:

• Recognition (and promoting plebes to PFC) at spring break. Lasted just a couple of years.

• No punishment tours. This too had a short life-span. So, I’m sure you will be happy to learn that the offending cadet can once again walk the area.

• While breakfast and lunch in the mess hall remain mandatory, dinner in the mess hall was, for a long while, a required formation only once a week. Now it’s twice, and the current Supe is threatening to move it up to three times.

9) Some random thoughts and changes:

You have to be careful to note the time-frame of the person with whom you are talking when gathering this kind of data, because things are in a pretty constant state of flux; so what was the rule in 1970 is not necessarily still the rule in 1980, or 1990, etc. For example, lights-out has gone from 2200 to 2300 to 2400 to unlimited; and is now back to 2330. Interestingly enough, when it was unlimited, they found that they had a whole lot more academic failures – the cadets were simply not getting enough sleep to be able to keep mentally sharp.

• Another problem you are going to have if you try to figure out what is going on up there on the banks of the Hudson, is that he activities at our dear old Alma Mater are so many and so much in flux that you can get different numbers for just about any current activity, all obtained from highly reliable sources. For example:

•• COL Ressler, from the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, came to our reunion to give us a talk on academics. He told us that there are 45 academic majors a cadet can pursue; while the official West Point web site gives a number of 36.

•• The official West Point web site also says that there are 29 Club Sports, while the Acting Director of Cadet Activities says that there are only 27.

Not only is everything in a pretty perpetual state of flux, but, as COL Ressler told us, it “depends upon how you count them.”

• Every cadet has a land-line phone in their room (including plebes). And most have a cell-phone.

• Today’s cadet can have a car on post, starting at spring break of Cow year.

• For more information on all of this, go to the West Point web site, at www.usma.edu

10) Our final topic is Branch Selection:

One new wrinkle: The cadets are now offered the opportunity to be given their branch choice ahead of their higher ranking peers, by agreeing to sign up for 8 years of active duty, vice the normal 5. This is referred to as ADSO (Active Duty Service Obligation). Note, however, that exercising this option does not guarantee that you will get your choice, as the number of ADSO slots is limited for each branch. But, unless you are a real goat, it will pretty significantly improve your odds. In one recent year, 169 of the 988 graduates got their branch of choice through exercising the ADSO option.

(As a side note: the ADSO option of agreeing to an extra three years of active duty can also be invoked to guarantee getting your first unit assignment of choice, or being sent for an advanced degree.)

As for the results of the branch drawing: Aviation and Infantry generally swap back and forth as the first major branch to go out each year, with Engineers generally coming in somewhere around nr 11; that is, out of 17 (note that each of the 17 branches is now available to West Point graduates).

(Note that, actually, Finance and Medical Service Corps usually go out before Infantry and Aviation, but this is because the number of slots for these two branches is very limited, and both are popular with the ladies. Note that I said that Infantry and Aviation were the first major branches to go, that is those with a significant number of available slots.)

Let’s face it guys, today’s cadets are a lot more gung-ho than we ever thought of being. Not only does Infantry go out early, but around 70 guys sign up for ADSO, just to increase their chance of wearing crossed rifles, and going into the thick of battle soon after graduation. But only 50 of those make it, with the other 20 being ranked into something else (like maybe Engineers? Hmmmm – how’s that for an ironic twist? – take that, Jack Vickers!). Speaking of Jack, I am reminded that, in one recent class, the top four graduates selected Infantry.

In addition to the standard 17 branches, graduates can also become Army doctors. One recent Class provided the Army with 17 physicians. An article in the Washington Post a few years back revealed that there were 54 West Point grads serving as doctors, just at Walter Reed alone. I could hardly believe my eyes; but, if they are turning out 17 a year, that number looks pretty reasonable after all. And BTW: these young doctors owe another 2 years active duty for every year they spend in Medical school (which would mean an additional 8 years or more).

And one last note: Cadets can now opt for an inter-service transfer, but only if they had a significant tie to the other service prior to becoming cadets (e.g., previous service or father/mother served). And BTW: West Point has produced two admirals, one in the Navy and the other in the Public Health Service.