By Brandon OConnorFebruary 15, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African-American cadet to graduate from the U.S Military Academy. He was not the first admitted to West Point, but he was the first to successfully endure the four years' worth of hardship, silence and unjust treatment African-American cadets were subjected to during their time at the academy.
Flipper's legacy and his enduring impact on West Point was celebrated Feb. 7 at the annual Henry O. Flipper Commemoration Dinner, which has been held the first Thursday of February every year since 1977.
That legacy is honored in part through the annual presentation of the Flipper Award, which is awarded to a First Class Cadet who demonstrated leadership, self-discipline and perseverance while overcoming adversity during his or her time at West Point. The recipient of the 2019 Flipper Award was Class of 2019 Cadet Lily "Da Yan Zi" McDonough.
"I'm really honored," McDonough said. "I can't imagine what Henry O. Flipper went through. I just know he did go through hardships and challenges and he overcame them. He didn't let those hardships set him back. He was determined. He had grit. That's what really inspired me. I believe we all have that, we just need to find it within ourselves."
McDonough was presented with the Flipper Award by retired Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, USMA Class of 1980, who also served as the guest speaker at the event. Brooks was the first African-American First Captain at West Point and also the first First Captain to ever lead a Corps of Cadets with women in all four classes and spread across every company.
"When we engage in respect, what we do is we strengthen each link in the Long Gray Line. We ensure that clasp from one hand to the next generation and the previous one is a tight grip that says we are part of the same line," Brooks said. "You are not different from me because you wore cadet gray. That makes you the same as me and we will always be one. That is the story here of Henry Flipper. My encouragement to you today is that you live a Flipper Day every day. Not the part that endured the silent treatment or the ignorance or intolerance that he endured, but the part that never lost sight of maintaining honor and integrity and never stopped fighting for what was right including his good name."
McDonough's first experience with adversity came well before her time at West Point when as an infant born in rural China she was given up by her parents and placed in an orphanage. There, she was given the nickname Da Yan Zi, taken from her Chinese name Zhao Yan, an identity and moniker she cherishes and uses to this day.
For roughly four years, she lived in the orphanage where she was given the responsibility of doing laundry and helping to care for two babies living there. Then, the trajectory of her life changed forever when she was adopted by American parents and brought to live in the United States.
"I know that it is a special part of who I am, and I wouldn't be who I am without being adopted and having those experiences as a child. Being Chinese-American has been a large part of my identity, but not defined who I am in America," McDonough said. "Growing up, I've always wondered who are my parents? I must have blood-related siblings and I've always been curious and wanted to go back."
Like Flipper who had fought through adversity long before he arrived on the banks of the Hudson River to attend West Point, McDonough's humble beginnings imbedded within her an innate desire, "To do well, to succeed and do good."
That desire manifested itself in high school when after reading an article about Chinese orphanages selling children into human trafficking, she picked up the cause and started a student organization at her school to raise awareness and money to combat the issue.
Her instinctive desire to give back and to serve is what led her, after being accepted to 25 colleges, to make the decision to accept an appointment to West Point and begin a career in the Army of her adopted home.
"Being a difference maker was my ultimate goal and that led me to the decision of applying and accepting a nomination to come to West Point," McDonough said. "I also realized West Point had unique opportunities I wouldn't get elsewhere, and that sense of patriotism and service was at the heart of what West Point was all about--Duty, Honor, Country. From the beginning, I totally bought in."
That feeling of being totally bought in was shaken to its core in the summer of 2016 when she was assaulted by a male classmate during training at Camp Buckner. In the days and year following the assault, McDonough faced multiple decisions on how she wanted to respond. First, she had to decide whether to report it and face public scrutiny and judgement, both of which would end up manifesting in the following year, or remain silent.
Then, after deciding to report it, she was faced with deciding whether to remain at the academy as the process played out, or to separate and join the Army, which was her ultimate goal, through ROTC.
No matter the challenges and the adversity she faced, through every step of the process from reporting the incident to the trial that followed, McDonough, like Flipper before her, refused to allow the incident or the treatment of her to be the thing that defined her. When given the option to drop the case, she instead chose to proceed not for herself, but for the sake of other women in the Army and any possible future victims. And, those potential future victims will be protected as her assailant was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and sentenced to 21 years.
When given the chance to leave the academy with a full ride ROTC scholarship, she instead chose to affirm, because through it all what stood out was the community at West Point and the ethos that had drawn her here in the first place --Duty, Honor, Country.
"There are a few lines in the Cadet Prayer that say to live above the common level of life, to not be content with the half-truth when the full truth can be won," McDonough said. "It roots back to always choose the harder right over the easier wrong. I knew that staying silent and suffering internally would be the easier option and I knew I had the choice to do that. I also knew, I couldn't let this happen to anyone else."
The sleepless nights that followed and the meals she couldn't stand to eat took their toll, but she refused to let the adversity stop her. She instead chose to draw strength from the incident and apply to become a member of what was then known as the Cadets Against Sexual Assault Committee.
There, she was once again able to turn adversity into accomplishment by doing the good she'd always felt a need to do, even if it was in a way and for a reason she would never have anticipated.
"The outward appearance may not show it, but we all do face sometimes insurmountable challenges," McDonough said. "Sometimes just getting to the next day or next meal is all (he or she) thinks about. I think the biggest thing for someone going through adversity is realizing that (he or she) is not alone and also realizing it is OK to be vulnerable and ask for help and find that motivation and desire to move on and to thrive in your current situation."
The committee has since been rebranded the Trust Committee, which to McDonough is the perfect name. Trust in your battle buddies, trust in yourself and mutual trust between you and those you're serving with is the bedrock of the Army and its ability to accomplish its mission. And, on that night at Camp Buckner, it was her trust that was shattered and forced to be rebuilt, something she has accomplished not by remaining silent, but instead by fighting for what she knew was right and doing what she came to West Point to do--serve.