By Brandon OConnorAugust 21, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- With white tape across his back spelling out the E in "3-Peat!," Daine Van de Wall marched to the center of the field at Lincoln Financial Field.
Joined by his six fellow prisoners who had spent the semester studying at the Naval Academy, Van de Wall was being traded back to the U.S. Military Academy so he could cheer on the Army Football team along with the Corps of Cadets during the 2018 Army-Navy game.
This year, Van de Wall will once again make that march across the field, but instead of serving as a prisoner, he will lead the captive midshipmen to be traded and receive back the cadets as the First Captain of the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets.
As First Captain, Van de Wall, a member of the Class of 2020, is the brigade commander of the 4,400 members of the Corps of Cadets for the 2019-20 academic year. It is a role he has built up to throughout his time at West Point.
As a plebe, cadets serve primarily as followers as they learn first how to take and follow orders. Then as a yearling, he served as a team leader, tasked with leading two members of the plebe class.
The responsibilities took a big jump forward when as a cow he spent a semester at the Naval Academy and served as a squad leader where he was placed in charge of 12 midshipmen, while learning the ways of a new academy himself.
"Honestly, sometimes, it was very difficult mainly because I didn't understand the standards and some of the rules they had there," Van de Wall said. "Working with the company leadership there with my fellow midshipmen, and my roommate specifically, really got me through that and I was able to teach them some of the things we do at Army, while also taking away some of the great things they do at the Naval Academy."
This past summer, he had his final audition for a brigade level command while serving as the command sergeant major for Cadet Field Training. There, his job was to enforce the daily standards and expectations for the cadets leading and taking part in the training.
At the end of CFT, it was announced he had been selected as First Captain for the upcoming year forcing him to switch his thinking from looking at day-to-day execution during the summer to crafting the vision and priorities throughout the year for his 4,400 peers.
"The role of the first captain is to lead the course," Van de Wall said. "I'm ultimately responsible for the performance of the Corps of Cadets. My job is to come up with the objectives we're trying to reach and come up with a vision for how we're going to get there."
Coming out of high school, eventually serving as the First Captain over the Corps of Cadets was nowhere in the cards for Van de Wall as it requires being at West Point, which didn't meet his criteria for a college.
Having spent his life in Maryland, his requirements for a college were simple-warm weather and a Southeastern Conference football team. The search would eventually lead him to the University of Florida, where he joined the ROTC program.
Growing up near Fort Meade and having friends attend the nearby Naval Academy, Van de Wall was inspired to serve, which led him to join the ROTC program at UF.
The concept of volunteering to serve in the Army was mostly foreign to his parents. Van de Wall is a first generation American after his parents moved from the Netherlands to the United States about 23 years ago with the intention to stay for only three years. Those three years then turned into five and eventually it became a permanent move as his parents became citizens a few years ago.
"Service means a lot to me, specifically having parents who are immigrants coming over here and just being welcomed into the United States of America," Van de Wall said. "My parents had the privilege to become naturalized citizens here a few years ago. Now, what it means to me to serve is really just to give back and have the opportunity to thank America for everything it's done for me."
While it was football and the weather that drew him to Florida, it was in the ROTC training where he really found his place and when he saw a poster about West Point he realized there was a better place for him.
"I saw a poster up that said, hey, the deadline to apply to West Point is on a specific date," Van de Wall said. "I actually had two weeks left. I did the whole application in two weeks. I flew home twice to do an interview with my congressman. Then eventually I got my appointment. And here I am."
Van de Wall entered West Point with the Class of 2020 on June 27, 2016 after spending a year at UF. Now, three years later, he is in charge. In only two weeks on the job, he has already hit the ground running meeting with the senior leaders to talk about possible changes to be implemented this year and to set the priorities for the year following the arrival of a new Brigade Tactical Officer and Commandant of Cadets this summer.
"One of my biggest priorities is that the leadership this year leads from the front," Van de Wall said. "We need leaders who will set the example, who will enforce standards and who will really inspire the lower classes to live up to West Point's name. One of the other things I'm really going to drive home is to have a simple vision and to take small steps."
Serving as First Captain inherently comes with the pressure of leading 4,400 of your peers, but during his final year at the academy Van de Wall will also have the chance to relish the perks of being the highest-ranking cadet. At the Army-Navy game, he will not only lead the prisoner exchange, he will also lead the Corps of Cadets during the march on.
He will meet with the leaders not just of the academy, but of the Army and the country as a whole, and he will have the chance to leave a permanent mark on the academy.
"There's a lot of big things to look forward to personally, but also the chance to try and see some of that change I'd like to see in the corps come to fruition," Van de Wall said. "We're really looking at trying to push ownership on the Corps of Cadets and force them to take initiative. To take it on themselves. If we can provide intent to the lower level leadership and the end state and then we let them figure out how to get there, that's how we can get people involved and own what they want to do."
Van de Wall is studying systems and decision sciences, which is part of the systems engineering department. After graduation, he hopes to branch infantry to begin his Army career.