WEST POINT, N.Y. -- A West Point graduation presents an almost unparalleled spectacle of camaraderie, perseverance and adventure. These are tomorrow's military elite, passing through a 214-year institution steeped in honor and tradition. On May 21, as nearly 1000 white hats flew up in the air, cheers of joy thundered through Michie stadium. In the midst of the spectacle, in the front row, stood the soon-to-be pinned 2nd Lt. Alix Schoelcher Idrache. Tears covered his face as he looked back at the crowd.
Alix had a reason to be emotional. In seven years he went from speaking basic English in a working class neighborhood in Port-au-Prince to graduating from one of the most prestigious military and educational institutions in the United States.
In his youth, Idrache witnessed U.S. forces conducting humanitarian missions in Haiti. Always fascinated with cutting edge technology and military hardware sported by U.S. forces, he remarked that it was the Chinook that blew his mind. In Haiti, becoming a pilot can seem an outlandish dream.
"People where I'm from don't grow up to be pilots right? Like they don't dream of flying a helicopter, that's not something you do," added Alix. "You don't just say I'm going to be a pilot and make it happen. There're no aviation, there're no helicopters, no flight schools. There're none of that."
This July, Alix will enter the Army Aviation Center for Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as West Point's top-ranking graduate this year in physics.
He recalled the first time he filled out branch preferences, "I asked myself what is one thing I could never be if I didn't come to West Point-and that's a pilot."
It's a story that's almost too good to be true. How did he achieve a congressional appointment, or learn English, or enlist in the military practically before his bags were unpacked in 2009. What drove him into West Point, and what drove him to the top of his class?
Alix credited his father, Dieujuste, for playing the primary role in his academic success. To care for his own family, Dieujuste dropped out of school at 14, leaving his countryside home to find work in Port-au-Prince, and, like any parent, the father of this young lieutenant wanted his children to have the opportunities that he didn't.
"My dad always said, 'education is the only gift I can always give you, because I don't have any anything material to give.'"
And so it goes that a young Alix Idrache, would spend his teenage years as a book worm, driven by a father's encouragement to use education and high marks as a ticket to a better life.
His impressive academic drive was facilitated by his father's drive to provide opportunity. Dieujuste migrated to America in search of a better life for his family, and in 2009, was able to bring Idrache to the U.S. as well.
But where this kind of story usually stops was, in the case of Alix, only the beginning of a series of happenstance incidents and National Guard-fueled teamwork.
The first of these challenges was a legal requirement. His preliminary visit to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office involved application paperwork with the Selective Service System. Alix used this requirement as a means to leverage his future.
Ultimately, he was attracted to the Maryland Army National Guard. As Alix recalled with a laugh "because of a free t-shirt!" The second stroke of luck happened months later, after Alix had graduated Army Combat Basic Training and his Advanced Individual Training.
His sister, then a high school junior, was required to hear presentations by the U.S. Service Academies. For her brother, she brought home a sticker that was handed out to students from West Point's liaison. Alix slapped it on the outside of his laptop computer, though felt his chances of entering the U.S. Military Academy were nil at best.
Idrache credits his platoon leader, then 2nd Lt. Larry Halvorson as the person who helped change his life for the second time in less than a year. Halvorson provided the information needed to begin the application process, and when the long application checklist surfaced, the unit's full-time office administrator, Sgt. 1st Class Christi McKinney, was constantly at the ready to keep the process organized and moving.
Alix left the National Guard in 2012 to enter the 214th class of West Point cadets, but McKinney's support was always there. McKinney and her mother, made visits to West Point from the day Alix became a "Plebe" to the day he threw up his cap. It was McKinney, with her mother in tears nearby, who presented 2nd Lt. Alix Idrache his first salute in a courtyard at Bartlett Hall, home of the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering.
In an award ceremony for top-achieving scholars, Idrache was recognized with a well-earned Brigadier General Gerald A. Counts Memorial Award for earning the highest rating in Physics. After the ceremony, with the auditorium empty and all the house lights shut off, it was a dramatic atmosphere to say the least. Black walls. Black floor. Silhouettes of Eisenhower Hall's 4432 seats. An illuminated U.S. Flag hung above the stage, possibly measuring 30' wide by 20' tall.
When asked, "What does that mean to you?" Idrache looked to it. Eyes locked. His lips quivered as he turned from a glance at Old Glory, his face drenched in tears from both eyes.