President Donald Trump announced two weeks ago that the annual commencement ceremonies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point would proceed as normal and that he would speak in-person to this year’s 1,000 graduating class — much to the surprise of academy officials, who had been carefully planning how to restructure the milestone for cadets without putting anyone at risk for COVID-19. So now, instead of delaying the iconic ceremony or conducting it virtually, the commander in chief is putting 1,000 cadets, an untold number of military personnel and civilians, and perhaps the cadets’ families at risk in order to give a speech.
Though dangerous and irresponsible, it certainly tracks with Trump’s lack of discipline and general disrespect for our military. It’s also an especially narcissistic response to the hard work of these soon-to-be officers, who have spent the past four years in the most grueling undergraduate program in the country. I would know: After my time as an enlisted soldier (and before I was medically retired due to health complications), I spent two years as a cadet at the academy.
West Point offers perhaps the furthest thing from a typical college education, and attracts some of the best and brightest, even when they could go anywhere else. Valedictorians, class presidents, team captains, Eagle Scouts and prior service soldiers with distinction in combat all have to compete for either a congressional nomination or a commander’s approval just to apply; their reward for getting in is a “free” education that comes with a five-year active duty service requirement in which they pledge to give their lives in defense of our country. Countless graduates have done exactly that — many of them buried in West Point’s cemetery.
From the moment cadet candidates arrive on campus for Reception Day at the end of June until they graduate four years later, they are tested for resilience, discipline, teamwork and most of all, their ability to grow as leaders — in addition to their mastery of high-level academics. It’s common for cadets to take more than the minimum number of credits per semester, as many work to complete not only a major in the humanities or social sciences but also a required minor in engineering.
Then there are the athletic requirements: Plebes (freshmen) are required to take boxing and “military movement” — the academy’s hilarious name for gymnastics — in which even the most uncoordinated cadets are expected to perform everything from tumbling to flips on trampolines to a merciless obstacle. Yearlings (colloquially known as “yuks,” but which you’d probably call sophomores) take survival swimming — often called “military drowning” by cadets. Cows (juniors) apply learned physical skills in a course called “Combat Applications” and Firsties (seniors) train on Army physical development for their future responsibilities in leading soldiers to peak physical performance.
All four years are additionally packed with courses on military leadership, from the basics of small-unit tactics to military history and leadership theory, and cadets are given increasing leadership responsibilities that are carefully evaluated. And they don’t get summer breaks: instead, they take leadership courses, attend field trainings, and are sent to specialized courses like Airborne School.
For four years, the focus of these students has been to learn — not just their academics, but also how to serve our country with respect and fidelity to the Constitution. But rather than honoring these students’ commitment to serving others and to protecting them as well as they will seek to protect us, Trump has ordered them to put themselves in harm’s way and undergo a logistical nightmare simply to fulfill a vain desire to lord over a grand military ceremony in an election year.
Thus, 1,000 cadets will, as ordered, travel back to West Point — many by car but most of them by plane — and those who fly will mostly go from New York City’s airports to Highland Falls via some mode of commercial public transportation, be it chartered buses, or by commuter rail from Grand Central Station to Garrison, and then by taxi or bus to campus. Along the way, they will inevitably be touching doors, guardrails, various handles, making contact with strangers and one another. They’ll then be quarantined on campus for up to three weeks, ostensibly tested for the coronavirus despite the ongoing shortage of tests in New York state. If they’re lucky, none of them will become gravely ill, despite one West Point instructor’s estimate that, between prior conditions and the journey alone, about 60 percent of the returning cadets will likely contract the virus.
Initially thought to be risky only for the elderly and other vulnerable people, the virus is now known to be deadly even for young, physically fit individuals. Available statistics now indicate that youth is no guarantee for safety from COVID-19; otherwise healthy young adults are experiencing strokes after testing positive for the virus because of a heretofore unknown clotting disorder related to it. Among only the returning cadets, if just 1 in 500 (0.2 percent) were to die after contracting the virus, that’s two deaths that were wholly unnecessary and preventable.
And that is to say nothing of the risks to their commanding officers, medical professionals and other supporting personnel required to be on campus to support the ceremony.
None of this seemingly matters to Trump, despite his claimed support for our military. I am not surprised, though — and I don’t believe any rational adult should be surprised. Even with all the available information on the risks to these young women and men in uniform at the start of their careers, with their commitment to the honor of their sacred obligations, Trump is putting them in grave danger just to prop himself up politically and play field marshal.
West Point alums are astounded and incredulous. Iraq War veteran Jason Fritz, who graduated in 2002, told The Washington Post “there is no military need to do this.” Sue Fulton, Class of 1980 and former chairwoman of the West Point Board of Visitors, told The New York Times “everyone is leery about bringing 1,000 cadets into the New York metropolitan area for a ceremony. It’s definitely a risk.”
But come back they will; these young women and men are already military professionals. They have taken a pledge to follow legal orders from the president and officers appointed over them, and this is a legal order.
As Trump shakes the hands of every graduating cadet in the midst of this global pandemic — a tradition for presidents who preside over the ceremony — I can only hope, against all evidence, that he’ll look every last one in the eye and reflect on what he’s asking them to do for his own benefit.
Charlotte Clymer is a writer, consultant and LGBTQ advocate based in Washington, D.C.