As 1,107 members of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2020 rocketed their hats into the air at the graduation ceremony Saturday on the Plain, their journey as cadets was instantly complete and they joined the 221 classes that preceded them in the Long Gray Line.
Prior to their graduating moment in the sun, the process of being woven into the Long Gray Line started with a close relationship forged with their 50-year class affiliation, the USMA Class of 1970.
The linking of the two classes began at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in 2015-16 before the full class arrived at West Point. Class of 1970 members Frank Monaco and RC Rutler were engaged in the class’ events, including the USMAPS graduation in May 2016.
“I was fortunate enough to hand out diplomas at the (USMAPS graduation) and tracked the class throughout,” Monaco, who is the Class of 1970’s webmaster and chief information officer, said. “I actually gave the class their class flag upon completion of Camp Buckner training.”
For Rutler, who served in the Army for 21 years including a tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, his link to the Class of 2020 is more personal than most of his classmates as his grandson, Reid D’Amico, was one of this year’s graduates.
“I am extremely proud of Reid,” Rutler, whose son, Scott, was a 1995 USMA graduate, said. “It wasn’t easy for him, and sometimes he doubted himself. I was there to inspire him and lift him up when he was down. Again, I couldn’t be prouder of him. I know the Army is getting a fine, principled officer who will be an equally effective leader.”
Class of 1970 Class President Dave Brown and First Captain John Connors met the Class of 2020 during the class’ plebe summer at their awards ceremony and March Back. Connors recalls how impressed he was with the class when he met them at Lake Frederick prior to stepping off during March Back.
“They were engaging, smart and articulate,” he said. “That has been the case in every subsequent event I was privileged to be a part of afterward.”
Connors also was the guest speaker during the Class of 2020’s Branch Night in November. Connors, who served five years in the Army as an armor officer before attending and graduating law school, said he was honored with the chance to address the entire Class of 2020, which was 1,113 graduates in total, at that momentous evening for them.
“In preparing my remarks, I determined that the young women and men wouldn’t be terribly interested in what was going on in the world in the spring of 1970 with the breakup of The Beatles and the wind down of the Vietnam War,” Connors said. “I felt that it was most important to communicate to them what I took from my experiences at West Point that was valuable to me in my career, both in the military and the civilian world.”
“Challenging circumstances of their Graduation”
This has been a spring like no other for the members of the USMA Class of 2020 as they spent the latter part of their last semester at the academy at home remotely learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And, what this year’s class went through to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming second lieutenants in the U.S. Army was not lost on the men who graduated 50 years before them.
“The Class of 2020 will be unique in the history of West Point because of the challenging circumstances of their graduation,” Connors said. “Build upon that distinction as a class that can handle any challenge that is certain to arise during its career. It will make a compelling legacy for the members of the Class of 2020, especially when they relate their class’ history to the Class of 2070.”
Brown, who served 15 years in the Army, first as a field artillery officer and then in the Medical Corps as a doctor before becoming an interventional cardiologist and building a heart hospital in Plano, Texas, said he sees a striking parallel between the two classes that goes beyond the current pandemic and more toward the tenor of the world through not only their time at the academy but on their graduation date.
“One of the things that struck me was our two classes are eerily similar,” Brown, who spoke to the class through a 90-second vignette for its graduation, said. “We were a bunch of kids who went to the academy a half of century ago, going in there not realizing what we were about to face, but fundamentally facing racism, riots, the Vietnam War and things that were unknown going forward.
“(The Class of 2020) is graduating with the pandemic, riots, racism, a continuing Global War on Terrorism and more,” he added. “My message to them was that their preparation has been extraordinary beyond anything any other kid gets in this country, and despite what has happened in the year 2020, I said, ‘welcome to graduation, you finally made it.’ We really believe you are the best prepared class the academy’s ever graduated to go out in this environment, in the world and face these things.”
The disappointment of not being together for Grad Week and Graduation Day
The members of the Class of 1970 had planned to be at West Point during Graduation Week to celebrate their 50-year reunion and the first member of their class to be named a Distinguished Graduate, Bill Roedy, but they were forced to cancel their plans due to COVID-19.
“The sad thing for us was this is our first distinguished graduate and he was going to get the award at the graduation parade ceremony,” Brown said of Roedy, who is the former president of MTV International.
However, one thing Brown said has came out of all of it, much like the Class of 2020 learned from taking classes through Microsoft Teams, is the virtual experiences has leading the Class of 1970 to get together more often rather than waiting for the next reunion.
“It has been extraordinary as a result of this (pandemic), although it is not what you wish for, but we’ve had a lot of reunions, you see so many people and then it’s over and you think about who you didn’t talk to or talk to enough,” Brown said. “One of the things this has forced us into, whether it is Facetime, Microsoft Teams or Zoom video, is we now have company and regimental leaders who are leading Zoom videos, in fact, C-4 had a Zoom Company meeting (on June 4) that went on for three hours.
“You couldn’t have done that any more than putting a man on the moon before this opportunity presented itself,” he added. “We now have more communication and more passion to get together … to set up (the 50-year) reunion (date) and people getting together, even for small things like virtual dinner parties.”
Every year, members of the 50-year affiliation class also hand out the second lieutenant bars to the new graduates, this was a job that Monaco was prepared to do on graduation day this year until it was no longer allowed due to the pandemic and the ceremony was closed to the public.
“I was one of four USMA 1970 classmates chosen to be involved with the 2020’s graduation ceremony,” Monaco said. “I am very sad this was no longer the case. However, I (was) there virtually (watching the ceremony).”
The toughest part of eliminating family and friends was that Rutler couldn’t see his grandson graduate on West Point grounds and experience the rush of being around the usual 10,000-plus people gathering that vibrates through an electric day.
“It is very disappointing,” Rutler said. “I have been looking forward to graduation day for a long time now–even visualizing how it will be. I missed the handshakes, the hugs and the tears. But he knew that I was with him in spirit and I guess we had to settle for that.”
“Serve with Integrity” passes its advice and legacy onto “With Vision We Lead”
As the Class of 2020 assumes its rightful place in the military as the next generation of the Long Gray Line to influence the future of the Army, members of the Class of 1970 offered up some advice from the their class that “Serve(d) With Integrity” to the class that will “With Vision We Lead.”
“I will tell them they are an incredibly special class, the ‘Pandemic Class of 2020,’” Rutler said. “All this serves to make them a unique class. But they are graduating, and they are about to go out and be leaders in our great Army. They are ready. One thing remains constant—the principles of Duty, Honor, Country that guides all graduates will guide them in their future lives.”
Monaco said there will be many more different challenges ahead for the Class of 2020 to be prepared for as they march into the military, but also remember that West Point has prepared them for it all.
“Know that West Point has taught you to think and consider many factors and opinions before making decisions,” he said. “Also, take care of your people and make sure you always serve with integrity and lead with vision during your short and long-term goals. Never give up, no matter what challenges and obstacles you and your teams are presented with.”
The last piece of advice comes from Class of 1970 graduate Terry J. Young, who served 27 years in the Army in the as an engineer and then branch transferred to Special Forces and served as an infantry officer and aviator, too. He is a father of 1999 USMA graduate Christopher Young and spoke about coming full circle as a cadet, graduate, faculty member, father of a graduate and a 50-year affiliate to where, “I’ve gripped hands with many, said ‘be thou at peace,’ far too often, but now stand proudly with this great Class of 2020.”
He started by saying that the members of the class have been given all the advice they can handle and have the necessary tools to be successful as military leaders and leaders of business in their future. However, the big thing he wanted to pass along to them is like the classes that preceded them, to always remember the people who got them to where they are today as they become the next generation of critical Army leaders.
“I would tell them to not forget the many people who led to their success and who play key roles in their future, not least of which are their parents,” Young said. “I can only imagine how disappointed the families are for not being able to share this once in a lifetime event with the class. Take in everything you can and share this with them.
“Your class graduation is extremely unique and not the celebration you had envisioned, but build from it rather than feel cheated,” he added. “Make it a part of your vision. Our class is also extremely disappointed in not being there to share this last step, presenting your ceremonial second lieutenant bars and seeing those hats go in the air. However, many of us watched the virtual events with large smiles, proud that we played a very small role. We wish you continued success."