Class of 2021 Cadet Leighton McAlpin went from not being sure if she could get into the U.S. Military Academy as a high school junior to one of the top leaders in the Class of 2021 as she is finishing up her summer job as Cadet Basic Training command sergeant major.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Class of 2021 Cadet Leighton McAlpin went from not being sure if she could get into the U.S. Military Academy as a high school junior to one of the top leaders in the Class of 2021 as she is finishing up her summer job as Cadet Basic Training command sergeant major. (Photo Credit: Brandon OConnor) VIEW ORIGINAL
Class of 2021 Cadets Leighton McAlpin (left) and Emily Johnsrud at hockey practice at Tate Rink.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Class of 2021 Cadets Leighton McAlpin (left) and Emily Johnsrud at hockey practice at Tate Rink. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

March Back is a time-honored tradition where new cadets complete their Cadet Basic Training by marching back from Camp Buckner to West Point. With those final steps, which also includes Acceptance Day, they become official members of the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets.

When March Back takes place Monday, even though it will look differently, it will be a deeply introspective experience for Class of 2021 Cadet Leighton McAlpin as flashbacks to her new cadet CBT March Back in August 2017, incorporating all the ups and downs, will flood her mind while the final strides toward graduation await.

“Reflecting on my new cadet March Back experience, I remember all the mix of emotions, the anxiety and happiness, to be done with Cadet Basic Training,” McAlpin said. “Then, it was the uncertainty of what the academic year was going to bring and what was going to happen when I was going to show up to my academic year company. Again, it’s the excitement to be done, but also the anxiety and anticipation for the next year and, really, the next four years.”

Now, three years later, McAlpin plans to savor the moment of completing her job as CBT command sergeant major in those same final steps marching around West Point, which is this year’s new March Back route, with the Class of 2024 new cadets.

“I’m going to be marching around the second time, the march around West Point, thinking of how much I’ve grown through West Point,” McAlpin said, “and where I am now in comparison to where new cadet McAlpin was three years ago marching back to West Point.”

The journey has been fascinating for the Buffalo, Minnesota, native, who at one point during her junior year of high school didn’t think she had a shot of enrolling at the academy.

“I came out (to the Northeast) for a hockey tournament in Boston, and my dad said we have to stop at West Point, so we stopped,” McAlpin said. “I walked away and thought, ‘there is no way I could ever come here.’”

Nonetheless, the summer before her senior year, she arrived at West Point for the Summer Leader Experience with more than 1,000 other high school students and came away with one thought, “I’m sold on coming here.”

“I visited a lot of schools and there is nothing that drew me more to a college than the sense of community I felt walking onto campus at West Point,” McAlpin said. “Everyone is connected in some way. We have these common ties to the Army values and to Duty, Honor, Country, which was really powerful to me.

“That summer is when I felt that attachment (to West Point),” she added. “One of the girls in my squad (at SLE), Sara Scales, we got to Beast and she was my roommate, so I’d already known my CBT roommate and then she followed me into my company and we were roommates last semester, too — it’s an incredible bond.”

Beyond the bonds and the ties that bind, McAlpin is driven, which she shows that when practicing with the Army West Point men’s club hockey team as there is no official women’s team. She is also involved with a youth and development program sponsored by the NHL’s New York Rangers.

“I grew up playing hockey and we’re trying to develop a place for women to play hockey at West Point,” McAlpin, who also competed in triathlon her first two years at the academy, said. “I think hockey is a great sport, as I’m sure other sports are too, for developing young girls and women into leaders on and off the ice.”

That confidence playing forward in hockey translates to being assertive in all aspects of her life, which now includes being the right-hand woman to this summer’s CBT commander, Class of 2021 Cadet Evan Walker.

However, life is full of uncertainties and changes. While McAlpin, who is a political science major, was studying last semester abroad in France, she learned in March prior to spring break that she was going to be command sergeant major for the Air Assault detail. But, then the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of Cadet Summer Training and how some details would train, while others would get eliminated overall. It also changed some of the cadet cadre’s original job duties and expectations.

“On May 20, I got a call from my (regimental tactical officer) on facetime, and he told me that I was going to be the CBT command sergeant major now, which was a big change in responsibility,” McAlpin said. “It was a big change in not only the number of people I would be leading, but the age group of the people I would be leading and just a completely different mission altogether.”

McAlpin had been preparing for two months for another detail, but being flexible as a cadet, as well as a future Army officer, comes with the territory as she had to jump into the deep end with the CBT detail.

“Walking into CBT a couple of months late, it made myself and everyone on staff feel sort of behind the curve, especially in comparison to some of our CST peers who had a group who had been working together and their leadership stayed consistent,” McAlpin said. “We found ourselves working hard the first three weeks leading up to CBT … writing standard operating procedures and policy letters, revising them over and over and trying to decide what we wanted Cadet Basic Training to look like.”

McAlpin said she is learning different things leading CBT than she would have at Air Assault. Then add in the fact that CBT is a much larger task organization with different resources allotted on a bigger scale. However, don’t for one minute think that because of the rapid change and the size of responsibility it made her a shrinking violet to the shift in detail. To the contrary, she is embracing it.

“I think I am learning a lot, especially from leading new cadets and being responsible for so many people at the academy this summer,” McAlpin said. “I think it’s been challenging and difficult, but we’ve found a way, both Evan (Walker) and I, to lead together and also enforce and support the things we are most passionate about (with the CBT training).”

While McAlpin feels she has grown most through leading in extracurricular programs at West Point, she also has been a team leader in her sophomore year and a platoon sergeant in the first semester of her junior year. But, this leadership role as CBT CSM, which she communicated to some new cadets who were isolated and quarantined in Building 785 after they came up COVID-19 positive, was something she never expected for herself.

“This position was never something I planned to do, or I thought I would have the opportunity to do, but rather it was the result of finding things that I was passionate about at the academy and working toward those passions,” McAlpin said. “(The academy) has helped with my own personal development and the development of the groups that I was a part of that I was most passionate about. Through that, I’ve grown as a leader and become suitable for a regimental-level position.”

During the summer detail, her job as command sergeant major is to enforce the standards and operating procedures that the CBT regimental group created. The role, she said, is heavily involved in customs and courtesies and ensuring the new cadets and the cadet cadre know them flawlessly.

“Sometimes, I have to be the bad guy. But, much of my time is focused on these white space areas where the cadet cadre is creating training plans on their own and executing them, particularly when it comes to the wear of the uniform while we are in garrison,” McAlpin said. “Lessons on the wear of the uniform, how their rooms look, inspecting rooms — today’s (July 23) SAMI (highest inspection status) for Hotel company — so myself, our S-2 and two members of the assessments team will be evaluating five rooms in Hotel company to ensure their company is hitting the standards.”

As she continues the job, she sees two things as her biggest challenges this summer, with the first being peer leadership and mainly enforcing the standards during CBT.

“With the big gap we had from spring break until this point, we had shifted our mindset, and by we, I mean cadets at the academy, as we were away,” McAlpin said. “Coming back into the military environment is a big adjustment, and at CBT, customs and courtesies, standards and discipline, are a huge component of the training especially this summer since we’re spending most of CBT in garrison.

“That was a big switch that was flipped for the cadet cadre and new cadets,” she added, “and I was the one responsible for ensuring that happened. And, from a peer perspective, it is difficult to enforce that among my friends and the people I go to class with, but it has to be done.”

The other challenge is dealing with the atypical summer and the challenges that have come from training in a COVID-19 environment. The cadet cadre also has to think about nonpharmaceutical interventions for every aspect of training.

“I don’t think there was anything that could prepare us for COVID-19, especially at basic training,” McAlpin said. “I feel like things change on the minute every day and we must have flexibility. We really must be thinking ahead all the time and able to make changes.

“We’re here to build a team,” she added. “That includes doing the right thing and, in this case, doing the right thing includes respect, wearing a mask, social distancing when possible, having respect for the rules and showing respect for others. I can’t imagine that this will be any less demanding than our experiences as platoon leaders in the future.”

McAlpin is hoping that despite all the hurdles faced this summer, the new cadets will develop personally and as a team. Her words of advice to them would be “stay true to yourself.”