Despite COVID-19 causing the cancellation of training events throughout the year, the staff and faculty at the U.S. Military Academy took all the appropriate measures to make sure the annual Branch Week event went off without a hitch Aug. 31-Sept. 5. Branch Week is one of the essential aspects of a cadet’s experience at West Point. It’s the main effort for the branch education and mentorship program to help the Corps of Cadets decide on their future.
Over the four-year journey, the cadets have to learn what branches the Army offers and put in their preferences for receiving their branch in their senior year. Still, the proper education on the importance of their choices is crucial in helping them make that lifelong decision, Capt. Michael D. Rodriguez, the Branch Week lead planner, said.
Before Branch Week began Aug. 31, cadets gain an idea of what Army branches will be like through other branch efforts like conversations with the staff and faculty at West Point, who have experience in branches. Another branch effort is an event called Cadet Troop Leadership Training, Rodriguez added. CTLT is held during the summer where cadets can go out to specific Army installations and shadow a lieutenant to learn about their branch of choice; however, COVID-19 caused the cancellation of CTLT this summer.
“The pandemic threw a huge wrench into our plans. But overall, we knew (Branch Week) still had to happen,” Rodriguez said. “We understand how critical it is for these cadets, specifically the senior cadets who are about to pick the branch that will dictate the rest of their career in the Army.”
This year, with other branch efforts canceled or condensed, branch week is the main education piece where the staff and faculty at West Point and Army units from across the nation can bring the knowledge in 17 different branch options to the cadets. Usually, each year cadets submit an initial preference so the Army branches can get an idea of what the cadets’ thinking process is like during selection.
Cadets walk by the stations with face masks observing static displays such as the artillery and rocket systems’ surrounding the Field Artillery display or the Military Police training exhibit where a trained MP dog chases and brings down a Soldier wearing a bite suit.
All of the displays give the cadets context on what they might consider as a career choice in the Army.
By their firstie year, cadets put in their preferences again with Branch Week being their final chance in determining what branch suits them best. After finishing with Branch Week, firsties put in their sixth and final preference choice sheet that gets input to a system that designates the official branch they will serve in the Army. On Dec. 2, firsties will get their branch results.
Subsequently, the Army branches go through their preferences, choosing the right cadet for their branch. In previous years, cadets picked their branch, with the Army branches unable to influence who joins their ranks.
“Ironically, the (previous branching process) had less success with cadets deciding what they want out of the Army,” Rodriguez said. “Now, it’s a more balanced effort. On one side, it’s convincing cadets that maybe that branch wasn’t good for them, and on the other side, Army branches understanding how to make cadets realize what branch fits them the most.”
Rodriguez said that every branch has its own distinct culture and style. Cadets need to learn everything they can about the culture before making an ill-advised decision. For Class of 2021 Cadet Trevor Halleck, his experience with Branch Week over the years was an enlightening experience. Through the years, speaking with the right people helped him learn everything he needed to know about infantry culture.
“My top choice is Infantry right now. I eventually want to be an Infantry officer because I want to provide Soldiers the best opportunity to lead and mentor other Soldiers from diverse backgrounds,” Halleck said. “Actually, in my plebe year, I had (Infantry) as my last choice. Now, as a firstie, I have it as my first choice.”
Class of 2021 Cadet Darnell Diego said that speaking with the Engineer Corps during his time at West Point helped him understand the course he needed to take with his career.
During his four years at West Point, he is working toward a degree in geospatial engineering and working with people from different functional engineering areas. They have explained the various job opportunities afforded to him if he were to pursue the Engineer Corps.
“It’s really about getting out there and talking to people with the experience in the area you want to work in. Talking with them and picking their brain gives you an idea of what you want after you graduate,” Diego said.
Additionally, in the past, it was optional for female cadets to select combat branches. However, this year will mark the first time they must choose a combat branch.
For Class of 2024 Cadet Chase Campbell, this is the proper direction to encourage more gender equality.
“It’s not perfect yet, and there is still sexism, but it’s definitely getting better,” Campbell said. “So far, I think West Point has done a great job of improving (gender diversity).”
Seeing more gender diversity was vital in helping Class of 2024 Cadet Darby Horne choose an initial branch. She added it would be disheartening if only male Soldiers promoted the infantry branches, but luckily for her, female Soldiers were out in abundance representing the combat branches.
“It’s really neat walking around and seeing all these heavy-hitting (combat) branches have females,” Horne said. “It’s nice seeing females and knowing if they can do it, then maybe I can do it, and if they love it and they want to stick with it, then maybe it’s something I can love.”
Rodriguez added that while its good to be passionate about the chosen branch, the cadet needs context on the adversities he or she will encounter throughout his or her career. Cadets will face war, drudging hardships and deal with the imperfections of their branch.
Essentially, the key is to find the passion within the imperfection of the chosen profession.