Like a very small percentage of high school seniors and recent graduates, Maui native and H. P. Baldwin High School grad Benjamin Wuthrich anxiously awaits word from the United States Military Academy at West Point for an admission, or Appointment, to the Academy. These cadet-hopefuls, more than 10,000 of them, are eagerly checking their mailboxes on a daily basis, hoping to find a large and bulky envelope from the Department of Defense, like I did over a decade ago now.
Contained inside are appointment certificates signed by the West Point Superintendent, a lieutenant general charged with oversight of the Academy, and stenciled images of the storied Washington Hall, all tucked inside green plastic folders–the same types that hold awards presented to soldiers in the U.S. Army for valorous acts and achievements.
Wuthrich received his Congressional nomination for West Point, a requirement for admission, from U.S. Senator Brian Schatz on Jan. 14 (of 40 Hawaii students, Wuthrich was the only one from Maui), clearing a hurdle that cuts the field of aspiring future cadets by well over three quarters (Ed. Note: shortly before press time, U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono announced that she was nominating Baldwin High student Aleksander Grant Asayo Paet to go to West Point). Of course, a nomination doesn’t automatically equal admission–in fact, less than 10 percent of applicants are eventually admitted into the Corps of Cadets. Referring to himself as a “free agent,” Wuthrich said he has yet to rule out the possibility of attending any of the service academies, but ranks West Point number one on his list.
If admitted, he will report to West Point, located roughly 60 miles north of New York City, on what is called Reception Day (“R Day”), usually the last Monday in June. Often described as the worst day of a cadet (or even graduate’s) life, cadet candidates report to Eisenhower Hall where they have just 60 seconds to say goodbye to their parents before boarding buses manned by cadet cadre to take them for processing.
Parents are not allowed to visit cadets until some months later and can expect just two phone calls from their cadet during the summer, known as Cadet Basic Training or, more popularly, “Beast Barracks.” Of course, this assumes that the new cadet doesn’t use his or her two phone calls to call a significant other instead.
To get processed, cadet candidates first surrender nearly all their belongings, change into uniforms and get their hair shorn. That morning, they will also take an oath to formally enter the Army and officially become “new cadets” for the duration of the summer. Stripped of personal identities and made to look as alien and mundane as their new peers, these new cadets are sent to report to the Cadet in the Red Sash.
The Cadet in the Red Sash is a First Class Cadet–a senior at the Academy who’s known by the red sash worn around his or her waist over a crisp white shirt and grey wool trousers, along with a white service hat and spit-shined leather shoes. New cadets form lines to report to the Cadet in the Red Sash, several of them really, following the instructions he or she gives: “New Cadet Doe, step up to my line, not on my line, not over my line.”
The commands continue successively until either the new cadet reports satisfactorily or fails and returns to the back of the line. Many cadets can spend hours in line before reporting flawlessly and moving forward.
On my first day, I recycled twice. The third time, when given the instruction “drop your bag” (not to be confused with “set your bag down”), the sound of glass shattering loudly startled the Cadet in the Red Sash just slightly before he instructed me to proceed (I had been carrying a framed collage of photos–one of the few personal items we were allowed to keep that summer).
My experience was fairly typical. One of my classmates apparently ran his forehead straight into the Cadet in the Red Sash’s service hat before being turned around to try again. Others mistakenly tried to report as “New Cadet Doe” or call a cadet officer “Sergeant” instead of “Sir” or “Ma’am.” After reporting successfully, each new cadet passes beyond the notorious line and truly begins Beast Barracks.
The first summer includes both administrative and military training, lasting approximately six weeks and concluding with a field exercise and 14-mile march from a training facility near West Point back to the lawn in front of Washington Hall. Afterwards, “new cadets” become “cadets” and are integrated into the full Corps of Cadets ceremoniously as all classes of cadets have by that point returned to begin the academic year. Cadets complete a dynamic and challenging curriculum of college courses, military requirements–including additional training during summers–leadership requirements and physical demands.
Over the course of their four years at the Academy, cadets are graded on everything from a headstand during plebe (freshman) gymnastics to physics and chemistry lab work. Leadership roles for both summers and during the academic year are evaluated and rolled into class rankings that eventually determine branch assignments and duty stations when cadets graduate and commission.
West Point is unique in other ways, too. For instance, the mess hall–where cadets will eat nearly every breakfast and lunch as well as most dinners family-style at tables of 10–has both smooth and crunchy peanut butter. For civilians this is of minor importance but at West Point it’s very important–especially given that the table’s peanut butter preference is determined by the senior cadet.
In fact, smooth peanut butter can be a freshman cadet’s best friend. This is because West Point authorizes cadets to take no more than five chews of food per bite. Unlike crunchy peanut butter, cadets can inhale the smooth kind, making it the easiest way to get calories with minimal chewing during their Beast and plebe year.
Traditions like these are very old. In his 1887 Harper’s article “Cadet Life at West Point,” Charles King wrote of plebes “with their little fingers pressed to the seams of their trousers, and the palms of their hands flat to the front, so that the shoulders have to be square, and their backs flat as an ironing board.” That description still largely holds. Everything was “squared off” for me that first summer, though our hands were cupped rather than flat when marching and were more often called “paws.” Climbing stairs, we held them at 90 degree angles the whole first year and turned corners in facing movements as well. And you always had to be “on a wall” (meaning right next to a wall) when indoors or making a perpendicular movement to it.
Summer training poses rigorous physical challenges such as marching under the weight of a rucksack while towing a rifle or scaling obstacles that mimic obstacle courses at other military schools, but winter at the Academy can be particularly tough. The average high temperature in January at West Point is a mere 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and the grey of uniforms and buildings extends to the landscape newly absent of leaves, inspiring the telling term “gloom period.” In fact, it sometimes get so cold there that it’s possible to walk from Arvin Gym, where the pool is located, to Sherman Barracks and have your hair freeze to your head.
Additional challenges exist in the form of expectations such as room cleanliness, punctuality and behavioral standards. Violations are met with fierce discipline. For example, a cadet who misses class or commits a transgression can expect to walk “hours” on the following weekend and the next several depending on the severity of the violation. A cadet with hours will spend the duration of assigned hours walking in formation, in a square, on an otherwise free Saturday morning while wearing a pristine uniform and towing a drill rifle or saber.
Cadets also live by the Cadet Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” This code, along with the Army Values, shape the cadet experience and foster ethical standards that cadets internalize and carry with them into the Army as officers after graduation.
In May of each year, West Point churns out somewhere in the arena of 1,000 new officers to fill ranks at various bases. The number varies due to attrition, some cadets leaving by choice and others failing to meet the strict standards imposed by the leadership of the Academy. The survivors, newly-minted second lieutenants, attend additional training before becoming platoon leaders, staff officers and whatever else might be needed by their unit.
If all goes well, Wuthrich will stand in Michie Stadium in late May, 2020 and throw his hat in the air for a small child to retrieve (hoping the cadet was generous enough to include some cash in the hat) when given the command “Class Dismissed.” Only afterwards, on his way to “the real Army,” will he see that the best view of the Academy (as described by many, if not most, graduates) can be seen in his rearview mirror.
Last week I got a chance to talk story with Wuthrich about his decision to apply to West Point. Not surprisingly, he had a few questions for me, too.
KATIE SOBOTTA: You received a nomination to West Point, and now you’re just waiting on an Appointment? I heard you were also nominated for the Merchant Marine Academy.
BENJAMIN WUTHRICH: Yes, I received my nomination to West Point from Senator Schatz already as well as the Merchant Marine Academy. I actually received nominations for Air Force and Navy from Representative Tulsi Gabbard as well.
KS: Very cool. You know she’s one of very few members of Congress who are combat vets, and she’s still in the Reserves as well. She actually visited Afghanistan while I was deployed there working in protocol. So why West Point?
BW: Well, I did JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) in high school, and I actually ended up a battalion commander. My mentor there really introduced me to the idea of going to a service academy. My goal is to be an officer first, to go to a service academy second.
KS: And this is your second time applying?
BW: Yes, I received a nomination last year but wasn’t admitted. I’ve submitted applications to all of the academies. I spent this last fall at Northwestern in California. It’s only a semester long, so I’m back at home, waiting. It was challenging physically and academically and really affirmed my desire to go to West Point. We had to learn vocabulary words, verbatim, every day to present in class, trying to replicate the memorization required at the academies. Did you have classmates that went to Northwestern?
KS: You know, I probably did. I knew cadets who attended New Mexico Military Institute and USMAPS (the Academy’s own prep school) before it was at West Point. It was still at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. That’s pretty funny about the vocab–the memorization is pretty critical that first summer. I still remember the definition of leather, if you’ve heard of it. It’s a mess of multi-syllabic words designed to fluster plebes. Those skills will help you, definitely. What, if anything, surprised you about Northwestern?
BW: It really opened up my perspective of candidates for the academies. The people I met in the program really solidified my goal in life to become an officer, to be the best leader possible. People there are so extraordinary and like-minded with a shared commitment to serve in the armed forces.
KS: I felt that way at the Academy. You’ll hear the expression about going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond a lot there. So what’s scary when you think about West Point?
BW: Finishing academics strong. I really want to succeed academically at the Academy. At Northwestern, their program reinforced working alongside peers and getting help from instructors, both of which were foreign to me.
KS: Academics are 70 percent of the OML–Order of Merit List–that will determine your branch and first duty location, so that’s a good place to focus your efforts. Instructors offer nearly unlimited help to cadets as well, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind. Definitely take advantage. Do you have any military history in your family?
BW: Both of my grandfathers served in the military, but aside from that, not really. My brother is in ROTC at Gonzaga. He’s a year ahead of me, and he’s enjoying it.
KS: Gonzaga over in Spokane, Washington?
BW: Yep. He’s actually over in Italy for the semester, even with ROTC. He’s living it up.
KS: I’m originally from Washington, so that’s cool. Italy, I bet that’s not a bad deal either. What do your parents think?
BW: They understand and respect our decisions to serve. They really love that my brother and I want to serve.
KS: So when you get there, do you know what sport you want to play? Are you going to miss surfing?
BW: I don’t surf a whole lot. I really like diving, SCUBA. I know it’s really limited, but I would love to go to dive school. As an officer, that’s a really challenging program to get into.
KS: West Point does have a SCUBA team–it’s a club sport, but it’s a cool opportunity. It’s pretty competitive to get into as well. I knew a guy that attended SCUBA school as a cadet, but you’re right about that being a rare occurrence.
BW: Soccer has always been a thing as well if it comes down to it. What sport did you play?
KS: I was on the softball team my first three years, but I was a slug (a cadet term used to describe intramural athletes–all cadets must compete in some sport) as a senior. So are you going to try to post Schofield Barracks as your first duty station to get back here to Hawaii?
BW: I think I want to come back later on in life. I definitely see myself returning eventually, but I want to move around and travel while it’s possible, at least for a little bit.
KS: I was stationed in Hawaii for my first duty station–it was one of my better life choices. Do you have any other questions for me?
BW: How were the academics?
KS: You know, I didn’t think I needed to be as worried about them as I did. I thought I would coast on academics there, but it was challenging. They’ll assign you a couple hours of homework for each hour of class, and you’ll need to learn very quickly what’s important and necessary to complete each night.
BW: That’s what I’ve heard. Any advice for Beast?
KS: Don’t stand out. As a female, it was nearly impossible for me. I also had a really tough time not smiling. That didn’t help. All right, I’ve got one more very serious question, mostly because you’re going to have to take a side beginning with your first meal as a new cadet. Peanut butter: crunchy or smooth?
BW: [chuckling] Smooth. West Point has the weirdest traditions of all the academies.
KS: You chose wisely. And you’re probably right about traditions.
Katie Sobotta graduated from West Point in 2009. She was honorably discharged in 2014.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo of Benjamin Wuthrich: Sean M. Hower
Photos of the author and West Point courtesy Katie Sobotta