WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Five-hundred days. In that short period of time, the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2020 cadets will receive their second lieutenant bars and officially join the Long Gray Line of West Point graduates.
To celebrate the short time they have left at West Point, the class held the annual 500th Night Banquet and hop Jan. 26.
"Man, 500 days. Five-hundred days to leave a lasting legacy, 500 days to boost up that GPA, 500 days to better ourselves for the Soldiers we will soon lead, 500 days to cherish the moments we have as classmates," Class of 2020 Cadet President Joshua Phillips said. "It feels so good to know we have made it this far. Looking back and remembering that morning on June 27, 2016 when we reported to the cadet red sash, there were a lot of mixed emotions, but we took on this 47-month experience with aspirations to becoming officers in the Army and to lead America's sons and daughters."
The class was joined in its celebration by guest speaker retired Gen. David Petraeus, USMA Class of 1974. After a long and distinguished Army career in which he served in roles including commander of the 101st Airborne Division and commander of United States Central Command, Petraeus served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Petraeus pulled from his lifetime of experience throughout his remarks as he used stories and jokes to humble, encourage and applaud the class for what they have accomplished. He warned the class to stay humble despite three straight victories over Navy and to use their time at West Point to prepare themselves physically and mentally to lead the Soldiers who will be entrusted to them.
"Life is after all a very competitive endeavor, one in which you don't get a trophy just for showing up," Petraeus said. "Doing one's best in each aspect of life here and after your commission, needless to say, will prove critical to your success and the elements you will lead. There are often times when one competes to be the best team player and not just individual."
Petraeus then offered the cadets six distinct pieces of advice of how to lead, conduct themselves and become the best officers they can. First, he implored them to lead by example. As a leader, the Soldiers under you will emulate what you do, he said, which means that in every aspect of your life you must think carefully.
"You can be a force multiplier or an oxygen thief, a source of energy or an air leak. Your attitude and your example will echo and reecho. Make sure it is one of which you will always be proud," he said.
Next, he encouraged the Class of 2020 to listen and learn and then to make decisions. As a leader, the future officers will have to listen to those around them and gather information, but in the end, they must make the decision, something they have to be ready to do.
"Recognizing when the listening is done and the time for decisions has arrived, you will have to make the call," Petraeus said. "There will be many of these pivotal moments when all eyes turn to you for a decision after a lengthy discussion of the situation and the options at hand. Be ready for those moments and embrace them as they will truly matter and demonstrate the reasons you are the leader of the unit."
Once the decision is made, it is important to not just tell your Soldiers what they need to do, but also why they need to do it, Petraeus said, for when they better understand the reason they are more likely to embrace the mission. He also encouraged the Class of 2020 to lead from the front of the unit in almost any task they must accomplish, no matter how hard that might be at times.
"Whether conducting physical training, cordon search or maintenance, in basically every endeavor except going through the chow line you need to lead from the front," Petraeus said. "That means you need to have the physical ability, the technical competence and the leadership attributes even to be out front and to inspire those who will follow. Developing those qualities is not easy. The body of knowledge is considerable as you have no doubt begun to learn here."
In conclusion, he told them to make sure they build not only themselves but their team as soldiering, especially combat, is "full of hardship, challenge, sacrifice and sorrow. Yes, there are moments of triumph, relief and celebration, but in combat and the preparation for it there are few easy days."
This year's 500th Night celebration also included the annual ring melt, which took place at West Point for the first time Jan. 25. Ring donor families were then invited to attend the banquet along with the class.