By Brandon O'ConnorSeptember 2, 2019
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Each week during the season, Army West Point Football players wear a decal on the back of their helmet honoring an Army division the current cadets may one day serve with.
During Friday night's season opener against Rice, the team honored the Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division with the red, white and blue AA decal proudly displayed on the back of their helmets along with the American flag.
The commanding general and command sergeant major of the 82nd Airborne Division attended the game, the division's chorus performed before the review parade and has become the norm over the last couple years Soldiers from the division who are eligible to attend the U.S. Military Academy were invited to visit for the game.
This season marks the third year of the Soldier Visit Program where five to 10 West Point eligible Soldiers from the honored division for home games are invited to attend the game and learn more about West Point.
The visits are structured much in the same way as an official visit for an athlete being recruited by one of West Point's corps squad teams. The Soldiers arrive the Thursday before the game and are paired with a prior-service cadet currently attending West Point who hosts them for the weekend. The Soldiers stay in the barracks with their host cadet, attend classes and eat in the cadet mess hall.
They are also given a tour of both West Point and the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School and the chance to meet with leadership from both West Point and USMAPS.
They then attend the football game with the corps of cadets and are honored along with division leadership on the field during a break in the game.
The goal of the program is to introduce eligible Soldiers, meaning those who are under 23 years old, unmarried and have no dependents, to the possibility of applying to attend West Point.
"I go out to the Army a lot and I'll talk to command sergeant majors or sergeant first classes who are senior noncommissioned officers and they'll be like, 'I had no idea that West Point was an option as a Soldier.' It blows my mind," Capt. David Mason, the Soldiers regional commander and founder of the Soldier Visit Program, said.
As part of each year's incoming class, West Point has available slots for 85 current active duty Soldiers and 85 Reserve/National Guard Soldiers. Typically, the full allotment of Reserve/National Guard Soldiers are admitted, but less than 50 of the spots for active duty Soldiers are filled, Mason said. There are also additional spots available for Soldiers to attend the prep school for a year.
According to Capt. Brian Gaudette, an officer in the West Point Directorate of Admissions, on average 53% of prior service applicants are admitted to the academy, a much higher percentage than applicants coming directly from high school.
"They see it as more attainable," Mason said of the Soldiers' reactions after visiting for a football game. "They learn more about USMAPS because people have this pie in the sky view of what a West Point cadet is, and that it is the all-star captain of the football team, and they're on all-state and they do all these things. They don't see themselves as that mold. I think it definitely opens their eyes."
Once the Soldiers return to their division, even if they don't end up applying to West Point, the academy still gains a benefit from them telling their friends about the program and spreading the word that West Point is an option for Soldiers on active duty.
Pfc. Abdiel Leon was one of 10 Soldiers from the 82nd airborne Division to visit for the Rice game. Prior to being invited on the trip, he said he had heard of the prior-service program at West Point but knew next to nothing about it. In the month since being invited, and even before arriving at West Point for the visit, he'd done enough research to compel him to go ahead and apply to the academy.
"So far, after seeing all the things that I saw and all the good opportunities and the things I could do here, I'm definitely going to go through and finish that application," Leon said. "I never even thought about West Point. I never even thought that I would be given the opportunity. So, now that I was given the opportunity just to even come here, it has definitely changed my mind a lot."
During the trip, the 82nd Airborne Division Soldiers had the chance to spend time with prior-service cadets, meet with Command Sgt. Maj. Jack Love, the senior enlisted Leader at West Point, and attend a spirit dinner in the cadet mess hall along with going to the season opener for the Black Knights.
"I plan on staying in the Army for 20 years, and there's no better place to try to stay in than USMA," Sgt. Levi Aslani said of why he is interested in West Point. "The connections you make here, the opportunities you make, or are given to you, no other place compares."
Aslani applied to West Point for the Class of 2023 and after not getting in on his first try he is taking this year to improve his application with the hope of being accepted to the prep school for the next academic year. After visiting West Point for the first time, he said his desire to attend West Point has only increased.
"I paired up with a prior service E-5 as well," Aslani said. "He was in the boat of either staying enlisted or being an officer and he chose the officer route and he's really reaping the benefits from it."
The visits are a chance for the Soldiers to meet with current cadets who have taken the same path as them and ask questions they couldn't get answered elsewhere. After being invited to take part in the visit, Pfc. Mackenzie Hochstetler said she talked with officers who are West Point graduates to learn more about the academy. But it was not until she arrived at the academy that she has come to realize why it is special.
"It's definitely a place that you see a lot of competitiveness," Hochstetler said. "A lot of times, you don't really see that in the regular Army, but everyone wants to be the best. I think that's a really cool atmosphere. I think that's really important, especially being at West Point and that reputation of being a West Point grad, I kind of understand it now. Because it's a pretty big deal. It's pretty prestigious."