By Kathy Eastwood (USMA West Point, Public Affairs)March 1, 2016
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 1, 2016) - The United States Military Academy at West Point held the 39th annual Henry O. Flipper Dinner on Feb. 18 to remember and honor the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1877.
Flipper endured years of loneliness and isolation among the predominantly white Cadets. However, despite his hardships, when he was handed his diploma, he received a standing ovation from his classmates and spectators.
Maj. Gen. John Schofield, West Point's Superintendent at the time, gave a tribute to Flipper's bravery for persistence through adversity. In keeping with Flipper's determination to stay at West Point and being recognized for perseverance and bravery by his peers, it has become tradition at the Flipper dinner that an award is given to a first class cadet who has persevered through West Point despite dealing with adversity and hardship.
This year's Flipper award was presented to Class of 2016 Cadet Bridget Ryan, an economics major from Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Ryan has a stuttering speech impediment, yet she still decided to attend West Point and join the Army.
"While my struggle with a stutter is nothing in comparison to what Henry O. Flipper faced, I am humbled to be picked for the award in his honor," Ryan said. "My experience at West Point has been the most challenging and developmental four years of my life. West Point has a way of finding something you are bad at, everyone here fails at something, however, it forces everyone to work together and overcome those challenges together. I may have helped some classmates with academic assignments, but I had dozens of classmates who helped me prepare for speaking presentations or get through summer training."
The guest speaker at the event was Capt. Kristen Griest, one of three West Point graduates who were the first women to earn a Ranger Tab through the Army Ranger School, an intense 61-day combat leadership course.
"Lt. Flipper faced an uphill battle against racial discrimination as the first African American commissioned officer in the Army," Griest said. "I knew my situation was a bit different. In fact, after graduating Ranger School, I felt like the gender situation was almost over. Ranger School was officially opened to women and all combat arms branches were about to be open. I felt like, that's it, we're done, it's over. I thought any insight I had on overcoming adversity seemed to be kind of moot. What could I say that would really be relevant to you guys?"
Griest said that recently, she began to realize that the gender discussion isn't over because she was beginning to hear a lot of skepticism about whether or not women in the Infantry could really work.
One study published stated that 84 percent of the Special Ops community were not in favor of women in combat arms and in fact, neither were most of her male classmates.
"I'm in the Infantry Captain's Career Course right now at Fort Benning, Georgia and one day during a briefing, the commanding general, Maj. Gen. (Scott) Miller, asked my class of 130 male captains if anyone was concerned about gender integration. About 80 percent of the hands in the room went up." Griest said. "So apparently, there is still some concern, and there probably will be when you get to your units. I think the manner in which leaders address that concern is critical, as it was when the Army went through racial integration."
Miller addressed Griest's class about the gender issue and reminded them that a decision was made and it was their job to execute, regardless of their opinions.
But he gave his opinion in the process in that he supported the new policy of allowing women in combat arms because of his experience working with women in that role.
"His public show of support is what I want to talk to you about tonight," Griest said. "It was worth a lot to me, and it is extremely relevant to all of you, because when I get asked how I was able to overcome adversity, I always think; because of leaders who supported me."
Griest talked about Flipper, who did have support through his commander and Capt. Nicholas Nolan, who took Flipper under his wing despite intense scrutiny rather than to bow to the opinions of his peers. She talked about how she passed the Ranger Fitness Test and the 12-miler, but failed the land navigation test.
"Land nav," Griest said. "I had never failed land nav before, and had never felt more defeated than I did at that moment. I dreaded telling Maj. Archer, but when I did, he did not seem discouraged at all and told me that I needed to get out there and practice. That day, I went to range control and picked up the five free maps they give away, knowing I was going to need all of them."
Griest took Maj. Archer's advice and practiced, at night, in the cold and damp, up hills, backwards and running. She was determined to pass the next land navigation course. "I made a point tonight of explaining how leaders impacted my ability to perform and succeed because I still always hear the question, 'how many women are even willing and able to do well in Ranger School?' Or 'Why bother to go through this trouble for a handful of women,'" Griest said. "They act like I'm some exceptional case, but I know that if there were more leaders out there like Miller and Archer, any woman could be successful in any role.
"Just this morning, I was ecstatic to learn that eight women here have chosen to branch either Armor or Infantry when they graduate in May. That's a big deal," she added. "Right in front of me is West Point's first female Commandant of Cadets. I stand on the shoulders of the women in the class of 1980 who were the first to graduate from West Point, and as many people have pointed out, women have been in combat for a long time. I'm excited for all of you who are about to be at the forefront of this historic change, not just for the military but also for our country. Take ownership of this mission."