Their journey began in July 2018. The Class of 2022 cadets have now endured two and a half years of trials and tribulations at the U.S. Military Academy to test their mental will and fortitude. Now, the moment had finally come for the cadets as West Point leadership and special guests gathered at Washington Hall Friday to celebrate the annual 500th Night Banquet to highlight the 500 days the Class of 2022 cadets have until they graduate.
During 500th Night, cadets don their dress uniforms and spend the evening socializing with officers and noncommissioned officers. Typically, 500th Night is celebrated through a formal dinner followed by a dance among cadets. However, due to COVID-19, the dance portion was cancelled.
The festivities began with everyone standing as the master of ceremonies, Class of 2022 Isaac Ford, introduced the official party of guests and West Point leadership. Afterward, an invocation was delivered by Class of 2022 Cadet Luke Stoner followed by the clinking of the glasses for a toast to the President of the United States, the United States Army, the U.S. Military Academy and to special guests.
The last toast, delivered by Class of 2022 Cadet Karen Yam, was filled with water to recognize the sacrifices military service members risk to defend the nation. A small table sat a few feet away from the podium representing all servicemembers from every component.
“As you entered the dining room this evening, you may have noticed a small table in a place of honor. It is set for one military member to represent each of the military services. This table is our way of recognizing the members of our profession of arms who are absent from our midst,” Yam said. “The table is small symbolizing the frailty of one prisoner alone against his oppressors. The tablecloth is white symbolizing the purity of their motives and answering our nation’s call to arms.”
Yam added the chair being empty means a servicemember is missing. The black napkin set on the table represents the American color for mourning. The single red rose reminds us of the heartfelt feelings of loved ones, and it is tied with a yellow ribbon as a symbol for everlasting hope for a joyous reunion for those yet unaccounted for.
“A single candle flame represents an eternal flame for their sacrifices. The slice of lemon on the bread plate reminds us of their bitter fate. There is also salt; symbolic of the tears endured by the missing and their loved ones,” Yam said. “The wine glass is inverted — our distinguished comrades cannot toast us this night or join in our festivities. Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen, as we solemnly toast, please remain silent.”
Yam lifted her glass, and everyone responded in kind.
“To our comrades killed in action, missing in action or prisoners of war,” Yam added.
Everyone drank the water from their glasses and stood silent to pay their respects. Afterward, Jackson took the podium and instructed that everyone be seated to begin the feast.
During the feast, everyone turned their attention to the screens to watch a video showcasing the Class of 2022’s experience during its Ring Melt ceremony.
Subsequently, Class of 2022 Cadet Xavier Williams took the podium and shared his thoughts and feelings on cadet life and the monumental achievement of being less than 500 days away from joining the officer ranks.
“It’s an honor (as class president) to stand before you tonight as we celebrate a highly anticipated moment in our cadet journeys. Nearly 1,000 days ago, we entered the hall for the first time and now we celebrate leaving in less than 500,” Williams said. “In less than 500 days, we will graduate and commission in the world’s premier fighting force. Let’s ignite the celebration for everyone in this room. Today proves that each one of us has demonstrated, in some capacity, that we have the skills, knowledge and tenacity to become a United State Military Academy graduate.”
Williams added cadets and special guests should fellowship and enjoy the company of the Class of 2022.
Williams then introduced retired Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who is the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Everyone pushed their chairs back and stood as Washington Hall echoed with applause. Dempsey, USMA Class of 1974, rose from his seat, shook Williams’ hand and took the podium.
Dempsey devoted 41 years of military service to his country receiving many accolades during his long journey. He now stood before a room filled with cadets who now walk the same path as he did all those years ago. This time he was there to provide sage advice to the cadets on the importance of leadership, Williams said.
“You know, you ever see the movie called Apocalypse Now and Robert Duvall says, ‘there’s nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning.’ I say, there’s nothing like the sound of 1,000 chairs scraping across the top of the floor on the mess hall, so I appreciate you,” Dempsey said as he thanked everyone for their applause.
Instead of reading a written speech, Dempsey opted to converse with cadets on a personal level. He spoke on his past mistakes as a second lieutenant and of the inspirational encounter he had with a nun, while on a mission to control the Czechoslovakia border in Europe, who helped him realized the importance of never giving up on troubled Soldiers, Dempsey said.
He added that she visited the Forward Operating Base to see if any Soldiers needed her help. There were six Soldiers in particular who were very troubled and under the influence of drugs.
The six Soldiers were playing basketball at the time and she wanted to talk with that group and pray with them.
Dempsey thought, at the time, it wasn’t a good idea for her to deal with those Soldiers, but she was persistent. She approached the Soldiers and asked if they wanted to pray and they all agreed and bowed their heads along with her in prayer.
“We get back to her convent and she gets out (of the jeep) and she starts walking toward her convent. Then she turns, suddenly and walks back to me and she said, ‘Why didn’t you want me to talk to the first group of Soldiers?’ And I said, ‘you know what Sister, they’re not my best Soldiers,’ and she responded, ‘Well, you haven’t given up on them, right?’ And I thought I didn’t remember having this conversation about leadership at West Point. But she had hit me in the heart because when I reflected on it, I absolutely had given up on those Soldiers.”
Dempsey returned back to the FOB and saw the group of Soldiers were still playing basketball and decided to join them in the game, he added.
“Now, I would like to tell you that I saved all six,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t. Among that group were some truly hardened criminals. But I saved two and 20 years later I was giving up command at Fort Carson, Colorado, and we had a receiving line at the end of the ceremony and I’m shaking hands thanking people and this big, tall skinny guy comes right in front of me. I see his name is Vincent and he says, ‘sir do you remember me?’ And I said, ‘I do, you were in my platoon back in Germany, in 1975. He was one of the six and now he (was) a master sergeant.”
The banquet concluded with a musical performance from Dempsey as he sang to the musical keys of the West Point Jazz Band.
“It was an amazing experience,” Williams said. “I think Gen. Dempsey’s speech encompassed everything we were feeling during our time at West Point, and if we work together and stay true to our mission as future leaders, like Gen. Dempsey said, then we can accomplish great things.”
For Class of 2022 Cadet Maggie Catherine O’Neil, the experience she had during the Ring Melt coupled with 500th Night was something she would never forget.
“The banquet was great,” O’Neil said. “I’ve heard great things about Gen. Dempsey and being real with your Soldiers and sticking with them and not giving up on them is a crucial element to being an effective leader and that aspect of the speech is really going to stick with me going forward in my career.”
Cynthia Hunter, the cadet hostess at West Point, said she felt overjoyed watching the cadets have a terrific banquet and receive knowledge from Dempsey.
“I think this is great because moments like this, I think, brings unity to the class. I think it lifts their spirits. I’m very proud of them,” Hunter said of the Class of 2022.
Dempsey took pictures with cadets and advised them on what they have to look forward to after leaving West Point.
“I admire, so much, these young men and women who see the troubles the country is faced with and are still willing help and be a part of the solution,” Dempsey said. “All I really wanted to do tonight was encourage them to do exactly what they set out to do, which is become the best leaders they can to take care of their Soldiers and stay optimistic about the future.”