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Cadets and Covid: Creating leaders during a pandemic

Recently there’s been a bit of a virus going around (stay safe y'all!). From students to your favorite barista, no one’s life is the same. Understanding how COVID changed the lives of my friends and family, I was interested in what else changed in the COVID environment. Did the highly structured environment of the military academies remain unscathed from the virus? For United States Military Academy (USMA) cadets, their lives completely changed. In this article, I delve deeper into the beginning of the cadet experience and the drastic changes brought forth by the Coronavirus.

In order for me to truly find out what the new cadet experience is like in the time of COVID, I sought out one of my good friends who just started his Plebe (freshman) year at West Point last July. First, I asked him how he mentally prepared himself for R-Day, reception day. He responded by saying, “From my experience, you watch the videos on past days where people are being initiated and you think you are ready for whatever they throw at you. It’s not like that. They immediately throw you into military life on day one. You adapt as you go.” Even those who have not at all experienced military life know that the difference is stark.

It appears that the transition from civilian to military life is sudden and possibly overwhelming to the unprepared. That made me wonder about what the first day was like, particularly during COVID. This my friend’s account of his first day, R-Day:

“They split the day up. The first half is getting cadets to the academy while the [older] cadets are quarantining. There was no saying goodbye to your parents. You had to have a negative test to be able to enter. If you had a positive test, you were put into a separate barracks for two week quarantine. The second half was basic army stuff. You get your PT clothes, running shoes, bath robes, and barracks. All of this must be done with distancing and with masks.”

Hearing his first day stories reminded me of all of the stories my dad would tell me about his West Point experiences. I was sure my friend had some so I asked him if he had any funny stories that he wouldn’t mind sharing. He was able to recall one particular story about his summer training.

“They way they had the meals worked out in the field, sleeping outside and stuff, you get three meals a day. Two MREs and one cooked meal. I personally preferred the MREs (They are great if you are starving). One night there was macaroni and pulled pork for our cooked meal, and there wasn't enough to fill us. While taking out the trash we bumped into a cadre of upperclassmen offering more mac and cheese to us. We accepted and went around asking people if they wanted any, none accepted. So we put the tray of mac and cheese (with enough servings for ten people) on the ground and ate it like zombies from the walking dead. That night I ate enough mac and cheese for three people.”

A common experience that my dad explained to me, specifically for your Plebe summer, was always being hungry. Despite changes over time in the West Point experience, and even through COVID, it was funny to hear the consistency of hunger.

In West Point, your whole day is structured. You get up and go to breakfast and then to your classes. You then eat lunch and go back to your classes. After you finish your classes, you play your sport or after school activity. Unlike breakfast and lunch, you don’t have to sit down for dinner, you can just grab it and go. You will usually have about two to three hours of homework per night, so prioritizing your time is essential for success.

The transition from civilian schools to a military academy can be rough. My friend explained his experience of the transition into the academic year at West Point.

“From my personal experience, the academic year is completely different from summer training. The majority of your time will be committed to your homework. If you let things get away from you, they are gonna come back and hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. You need to prioritize your assignments.”

As we talked about his academic experience, it seemed appropriate to bring up the recent large cheating scandal that occurred during a calculus exam in the spring of 2020 (prior to my friend’s attendance). About seventy students cheated during that test. “I’d rather not talk about the scandal. The cadet honor code says that ‘I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do’”. When my dad and his friends were at West Point, breaking the cadet honor code would result in expulsion, and a potential opportunity to return in a later class year; however, none of the cadets in this incident appeared to receive as harsh of a punishment.

Cadet life has drastically changed as time moves on. Yet time isn't the only factor that changed cadet life. Returning to COVID, I asked my friend how the Coronavirus has changed cadet life for him and the upperclassmen as well.

“My class has little to no difference, we are still the bottom of the food chain. The sophomores, the yuks, get more weekend passes and they could take the day and go to New York if they wanted. The upperclassmen are facing the biggest differences compared to the previous upperclassmen. Their schedule used to be very flexible, but now they basically have the same privileges as plebes”.

Cadet life at West Point is far from normal compared to their university peers, yet these cadets will surely persevere and become the quality future leaders that West Point is known to produce.


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