By Brandon OConnorFebruary 13, 2020
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Sitting down to talk about the Henry O. Flipper Award she would be receiving later that evening, a verse from a recent bible study came to Class of 2020 Cadet Jaqueline Hamrick's mind.
The verse, 1 Peter 5:9, says "Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings." Hamrick was receiving the award because of all she had overcome to be a little more than 100 days from graduation. But she wanted to make it very clear that the award was not just for her. It was for all those who helped her and supported her during her struggles and for all those who have faced challenges during their time at the U.S. Military Academy.
"The Flipper Award is a really great time for everyone to kind of stop and think," Hamrick said. "Everyone's going through a lot of struggles. Here, everyone's suffering different things. I don't think the things I've gone through in any way, shape or form are more important or a higher level than anyone else here. I think that should be recognized."
The Flipper Award has been given to a West Point firstie (senior) annually since 1977 in honor of Henry O. Flipper, the academy's first African American graduate. The award honors a graduating cadet who has persevered through unusual adversity while displaying leadership qualities during his or her time at the academy.
Hamrick's adversity started not while at the academy, but during her sophomore year of high school. Her mom was diagnosed with grade four gliosarcoma, a rare form of brain cancer, and originally given four to six months to live.
That initial prognosis proved to be untrue as her mom lived for two and a half years following her diagnosis. Hamrick decided not to delay her West Point appointment despite her mom's illness and arrived at the academy with her mom in terminal decline.
For Reception Day, Hamrick's dad was unable to get time off work and her mom was in poor health, so he drove Jaqueline from the Chicago area, dropped her off at Eisenhower Hall and turned around to drive 12 hours back home.
R-Day is the first day of a new cadet's transition from civilian life to Army life as they are taught to march, receive their first uniforms and report to the cadet in the red sash. Hamrick was ready for the military aspects of the day. Her dad, currently a sergeant first class in the Army, had stood her in the living room, yelled in her face and made her do movements.
What he couldn't prepare her for was giving up her cellphone for the six weeks of Beast Barracks. Cadet Basic Training at West Point is tough as new cadets learn the basics of Army life. It was even tougher for Hamrick with her mom in terminal decline from brain cancer. Without her phone for six weeks, Hamrick couldn't call home to check in. Instead, she had to fight through Beast Barracks each day while also wondering if she would get pulled aside for a call from home to let her know her mom had passed away.
But, as would prove true each time she struggled at West Point, Hamrick's fellow cadets were there to pick her up, support her and get her through.
"When I was feeling really lonely, when I was feeling depressed, I had a lot of thoughts of I don't know if I can stay here, my family needs me, I need to go home and try and take care of them. It was my teammates who were there for me and who supported me," Hamrick said.
The phone call never came during Beast Barracks, but during her first semester at West Point she made multiple emergency leave trips home to be with her mom who eventually passed that semester on Nov. 22, 2016. It was a moment her family had been preparing for since her mom's diagnosis. Though the loss was expected, Hamrick struggled to stay focused. That focus was something she said took almost two years for her to get back.
Hamrick entered West Point with the dream of attending medical school and becoming an Army doctor. It was something she'd dreamed about since becoming obsessed with the brain as a kid. The experience with her mom further galvanized that desire after seeing the role doctors played not just in her physical, but also mental well-being. It also convinced her the correct path was to become an oncologist and help others the way doctors helped her.
With the already rigorous pressure of West Point piled atop the pain and grief of losing her mom, Hamrick's grades began to slip putting that dream in jeopardy, but once again the community at West Point was there to support her. Her teammates on crew picked her up. Her tactical noncommissioned officer became her mentor and supported her through her grief by sharing stories of how he overcame his son's passing.
With their support, she not only survived the academy but thrived and will be attending medical school at the Uniformed Services University of Health Science following graduation.
"I just really hope that during this time, during this month, during this dinner, people are really thinking about each other," Hamrick said. "A lot of people don't know the things I've been through and I also don't know a lot of things that others have gone through. I think if we take the time and make a little bit of self-sacrifice for each other, it's going to make the corps better."
The cadet leadership also supported Hamrick's desire to promote awareness of brain cancer and raise money for the organization Voices Against Brain Cancer through a charity event called the Brain Freeze Challenge. After her mom was first diagnosed, one of the main symptoms was a "twinging pain in her head and she would call it a brain freeze," Hamrick said.
In 2015, her mom held the first ice cream eating contest deemed the Brain Freeze Challenge in Chicago to raise awareness. Hamrick's mom was only able to host it once before passing, but Hamrick continued the legacy on Mother's Day during her second year at the academy.
The challenge has raised about $4,000 in two years and will be held again this year on May 10. Hamrick has also laid the foundation so the pre-med society at West Point can continue hosting it after she graduates.
"It's something I'm really proud of, and it's something I'm really proud of the corps for participating in. It was really great to see how much everyone cared," Hamrick said. "In my time here, I've realized how many other people are affected by cancer, other terminal illnesses and just so many other things. It's a really great way for me and others to take a moment and think about, 'How this is affecting not just people outside of West Point, but also people here.'"
Hamrick received the annual Flipper Award Feb. 6 during the Henry O. Flipper Dinner. The dinner featured guest speaker retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West, USMA Class of 1983. West is the highest-ranking female graduate of West Point. She retired in July after serving as the 44th surgeon general of the Army.
"If our own Buffalo Soldier (Henry Flipper) did not endure the hardships he did to become the first African American to graduate in 1877, I would never have been able to march onto the plain on R-Day or to jettison my cover into the air on graduation day," West said. "Events like this evening's Henry Flipper dinner, carve out time to give us context. So, embrace it and use it as a time to remind yourself of our history and to determine how you can apply it to become even better."
The Flipper Award is given annually on the first Thursday in February in honor of Black History Month.