Exploring a cemetery may have an eerie aura to it as young men and women pace from one headstone to another during an intermittent drizzle, overcast day. On the contrary, despite the gloomy weather conditions, this day is not meant for melancholic thoughts but a sense of higher purpose in honoring fallen graduates and reflecting on the meaning and risks of a prospective future in the profession of arms.
U.S. Military Academy cadets in the Class of 2023 trekked the West Point Cemetery April 29 during the 16th annual “Inspiration to Serve” Cemetery Tour and Pre-Affirmation Reflection event. The Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic planned the tour as part of the Cadet Character Education Program at West Point. The event was executed by SCPME and the Brigade Tactical Department as the tactical officers and noncommissioned officers led their respective companies to honor the fallen graduates. The yearlings pondered their own upcoming decision as they strengthened their resolve to serve and commit to the Army during the Affirmation Ceremony in August.
The “Inspiration to Serve” event was done in three phases that began with an orientation at the steps of the Old Cadet Chapel after the cadets entered the gates of the West Point Cemetery. The TACs and TAC NCOs led their company third-class cadets to the gravesites of their choice. All participants were provided a guidebook with a cemetery map and information of the 22 graduates, spanning USMA classes of 1995-2010, who were killed while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during the Global War on Terrorism. Information was also provided on three historical graduates who commanded in war but weren’t killed, to include two USMA Class of 1929 classmates, Maj. Gens. James Gavin and Frank Merrill, and USMA Class of 1956 graduate, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Subsequently, after the cadets were allowed time to traverse the cemetery on their own, a reflection period was given where the TACs facilitated reflective discussions with the cadets on what it means to be an Army professional.
“This day is designed to be challenging and tough,” Col. Scott Virgil, SCPME director, said. “It’s to make everyone think about what it means to join the profession of arms and that is part of what it gets after.”
Virgil said the day and entire concept of the “Inspiration to Serve” event was driven by Dr. Peter Kilner, SCPME chair of character development, and his right-hand man, Maj. Dan Fitzgerald, SCPME education officer, who helped operationalize many of the concepts. Their vigilant work allowed the TACs the capacity to support and drive home the meaning of the day.
“Ultimately, this is to serve our customers here, which are the cadets, as they get ready to affirm and we re-emphasize unlimited liability and the ties to the Long Gray Line,” Virgil said. “The other aspect of this is showing appreciation to our fallen graduates. (As a result), that’s what it’s really all about when we talk about tying us to the Long Gray Line — honoring our fallen brothers and sisters who are buried in the West Point Cemetery.”
Honoring graduates and developing cadets toward service
As the cadets of the Class of 2023 streamed one company at a time into the cemetery, they were met by Kilner who welcomed them with sentiments on serving in the military and the ultimate sacrifice given by many who are buried at the cemetery. However, he also spoke about the many who lived long lives and made a lifelong commitment to the nation.
Kilner, who served 28 years in the military as an infantry officer and then as an academy professor before his current civilian post, said first and foremost the purpose of the day was about honoring the graduates who have gone before them.
In his orientation speech, he spoke about USMA Class of 1964 graduate, Maj. John Hottell, who had his men write their own obituaries while serving in Vietnam. While Hottell eventually died in Vietnam in a helicopter accident in 1970, he wrote in his own obituary, communicated in Kilner’s words that West Point, the Army and the love for country are not things he died for, but that he lived for them.
“… The promise that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough – for me, to accept this possibility (of death) as part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value,” Hottell wrote. “If there is nothing worth dying for, in this sense, there is nothing worth living for.”
Kilner subsequently spoke to the cadets about their own accountability toward selfless service to the country.
“It’s intended to challenge them to think about their willingness to walk in the boots of the people who went before them because, like most of the people buried here, they could have a long life of service to the country,” Kilner said, “but that service may also put their lives at risk.”
Kilner added that it should be a conscious decision that these young cadets make in affirming in August to their final two years at the academy and then at least five years of active-duty service in the Army.
“A conscious decision where they’re saying, ‘this is what I choose to live for, and it’s worth dying for and it’s worth killing for to defend,’ and only then I think they have the moral authority to lead Soldiers to do the same,” Kilner said.
Kilner, who is responsible for designing and developing the Cadet Character Education Program, said that this is the midpoint of the CCEP, which is a four-year program. He said the first two years are about personal development and growth, and then focusing on professional character and preparing to be an officer in the Army for the final two years.
“This event is an inflection point in the cadets’ experience here. We ask them to ‘think about who you are and who you want to be,’ because once you affirm your commitment to the Army profession in August, the CCEP is going to be focused on helping you becoming the best officer leader of character you can be,” Kilner said.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there was a different concept to this year’s cemetery tour due to no outsiders being allowed, including Gold Star family members. Kilner said there is a great power to hearing the Gold Star family members speak, which many cadets gravitated toward on a yearly basis, but this year allows for opening the aperture of telling more fallen graduate stories with the help of TAC officers who knew these graduates in some way.
“We really moved to a mission command philosophy, which is we did the research and we empowered the TAC officers with information about many graduates,” Kilner said. “We let them know what activities the cadets did, what companies they were in, so they could find common ground for the cadets. The TAC officers went to the gravesites of people they felt most connection with.”
During the tour and afterward, Kilner said the cadets were encouraged to explore the cemetery with a little more self-direction through the guidebook map and stories of the fallen graduates. The cadets also had the ability to watch interactive videos of the fallen graduates in three tents adjacent to the Old Cadet Chapel.
“Staff and faculty at West Point who knew some of the people who are buried here, whether they served with them, were friends with them, were roommates with them, we recorded and worked with the Center for Oral History to capture their testimonies about them,” Kilner said. “For the cadets, the event continued afterward if they wanted to watch more testimonies about some of the people they heard today.”
Kilner said it is emotional for him as well as he taught four students who died in the GWOT, three of whom are buried at the West Point Cemetery and were among the 22 honored fallen graduates.
“I’m so happy to be able to honor them,” Kilner said. “This opens conversations that we hope go on for much longer. It’s a chance to remember them, honor them and remember that these were people who had dreams just like today’s cadets do. We focus on the more recent graduates because today’s cadets can relate to them better.”
Another aspect was cadets were allowed to view the inside of the Old Cadet Chapel, which is set up the same way it was during the 19th century, which includes brass plaques on the right wall of general officers who served the Continental Army and brought freedom and independence to America. On the left wall, there are bronze plaques of graduates who died in combat in the Civil War and other conflicts and were updated while the Old Cadet Chapel was the place of worship where Bartlett Hall is currently located.
“For generations, cadets attended mandatory chapel in this chapel,” Kilner said. “The names listed on the bronze plaques that surrounded them each week reminded them of both the significance and the risks of serving our nation as an Army officer.
“Now, without mandatory chapel, cadets don’t have that presented to them as often, so that’s why we do this cemetery tour and guided reflection,” Kilner added. “It’s a reminder that they are following in the footsteps of great people who made great choices, but it also comes with a risk — and we want them to understand that.”
Another goal beyond the cemetery tour, Kilner said, is creating a website that allows everyone to constantly honor those who went before them. Kilner said the goal is to “honor as many as possible.”
The tour and sacrifices made in service
It begins with the commitment to service and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice is paid with one’s life. Maj. Lauren Seibt, G-1 tactical officer, said loss doesn’t solely pertain to death on the battlefield as it can include training accidents, unfortunate events in the barracks or on the roadways of the United States. However, no matter how a Soldier dies, the important thing is always living in his or her memory.
“You’ll forever be bound to the guys to your left and to your right,” Seibt said to the G-1 Company cadets during their reflection period.
She said some of the hardest moments of her life were the times she had to make the tough call or wrote a letter to loved ones who lost their Soldier.
“How do you convey something of that magnitude?” Seibt asked the cadets. “Just lead with compassion and do the best you can under any circumstance … and carry out someone’s legacy with character and courage.”
Maj. Michael Sheehan, H-1 Company tactical officer and USMA 2010 graduate, talked about many graduates killed in the GWOT, including his Army West Point rugby teammate, 1st Lt. Dimitri del Castillo.
“With Del, I knew him well enough that whenever I talk about him, I have a few thoughts that always stick out to me about how he lived and how he died,” Sheehan said. “It is about the selflessness of everything he did, both at West Point and as a leader in the Army.”
While it is emotional to him, Sheehan said this isn’t so much about mourning and sadness, albeit there is a tinge of it, but it is about going beyond looking at a headstone and learning lessons and being inspired in the stories and sacrifices of service by those who came before them.
“We’re building lieutenants and these kids are getting ready to make the affirmation and that’s their final chance to say never mind,” Sheehan said. “This is tremendously impactful … because sometimes we are a bit removed from the reality of what we’re asking them to do after graduation.
“Sometimes, to them, graduation is the finish line but we’re trying to re-center them here that it’s really kind of the starting line of another challenge,” he added.
Sheehan said he personally doesn’t remember going to “Inspiration to Serve” as a cadet, but being able to talk about del Castillo, Tim Steele or Daren Hidalgo’s stories or other faculty members and family members talking about Laura Walker or Emily Perez, helps tell their stories and keep them at the forefront of the cadets’ minds.
“That is what we always say, say their name, tell their stories because if we don’t, who will and reaching out to the folks who knew them their whole lives, the folks who fought with them and the folks who led with them,” Sheehan said. “I think that is a huge positive that we give the cadets that firsthand look.”
Sgt. 1st Class Adam Potter, an infantryman and F-1 Company TAC NCO, spoke to the cadets about understanding the affirmation process and that despite the many things that can go wrong, the Army is “a good job, a good career, a good profession.”
While reflecting, Potter told the cadets to think about filling the shoes of those who came, and died, before them and picture what that means in terms of service. He also spoke from personal experience of his own that sacrifice isn’t always just about giving up your life, sometimes you miss the important things in life, or in his case, miss important stretches of personal life experiences when he went back to Afghanistan to serve six more months after his son’s birth.
“That was hard leaving four days after the birth of my first-born son,” Potter said. “It’s the duty, that’s my job. It puts food on my family’s table. At the end of the day, I enjoy it and I had to go back and serve with my brothers in arms. They were waiting for me and they were waiting for their turn to go home. I had to go back.”
Sheehan added from his experiences “A number of Soldiers I’ve deployed with have missed births, missed deaths or missed weddings, lost family members and have sacrificed everything up to and including their lives.”
“It’s not just about sacrificing, it’s having a sense of purpose,” Sheehan remarked. “If you didn’t have that sense of purpose, none of this would make sense and this profession wouldn’t make a ton of sense if there wasn’t a reason why this was all worth it.”
The event was a day that cadets found a purpose in everything they witnessed and absorbed into their tool kit in making their own personal decisions to continue serving.
“It’s been very inspiring to get to see all these leaders, even those who are not recognized by history, who are members of the Long Gray Line,” Class of 2023 Cadet Nick Kramer, I-1 Company, said. “It’s getting to know that if I affirm and graduate, then regardless of if I die while serving or if I die later in life, I’ll still have a connection to them, which is an inspiring thing to get to see.”
Kramer said his TAC officer, Maj. James Beebe, spoke about his interactions with a classmate who died in combat.
“He reflected on his own feelings that he and the rest of his class had when that person died in action in Afghanistan,” Kramer said. “It was very interesting to hear someone who is not that far removed from the academy, about 10 or 11 years, and get their perspective and what it’s like and help contextualize it for the rest of us.”
Kramer is named after his grandfather who served as an infantryman in World War II and landed in Normandy 11 days after D-Day in June 1944, and then fought through France, Germany and stayed during part of the occupation in 1946. Kramer said he would like to follow his grandfather’s footsteps and pursue infantry as a branch as part of his commitment to service.
“The words service, sacrifice and commitment can be wrapped up, and it may sound cliché, as part of your duty and duty is one of those values at the academy,” Kramer said. “It is your duty to do those things as an officer. It is represented here by the many of people who have fallen in various conflicts to help our country throughout points in time.
“Many of them had those values and to me that means doing your duty as an officer and as a Soldier,” he added.
Class of 2023 Cadet Jacob Sayers, an Arabic and Psychology major from Company B-2, said his TAC officer, Lt. Col. Corrine Miller, mentioned some of the biggest reasons people stay at the academy, which he agrees with, is “The sacrifice to our country and the honor, integrity and the respect for everyone who came before us.”
Besides honoring the fallen graduates, Sayers and a couple of company mates set out to find the gravesite of former cadet, Peter Zhu, who died a couple years ago at the academy in a skiing accident. There was an inspiring quote that he wanted to read off his headstone and pay homage to him.
“He was so academically strong, so smart and achieved so much here,” Sayers said. “He was the pre-med president and wanted to be a doctor. He cared about those things and also cared about the things that were really important — relationships, his family and his country.”
There was also a headstone to the left of Zhu that Sayers paid close attention to, which was Cadet Kade Kurita who committed suicide last academic year while Sayers was a plebe.
“That was a pretty impactful death for everyone here,” Sayers said. “There are feelings that we could have done more, but I think that is always what it is with suicides. There are always the signs, but I think the cadets have come to terms with it … unfortunately, these things occur, and we did the most we could have done.”
The final words …
Undaunted determination. Fun person. Intellectual. Loyal. Persevered. Phenomenal man. Focused. Self-motivated. One-of-a-kind person. Courageous. True leader. These were some of the adjectives used to relate to the 22 graduates who were highlighted in the “Inspiration to Serve” guidebook.
For better or worse, despite dying at young ages, they will always be remembered for making the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country, which goes back to what it means to serve, sacrifice and commit. Consequently, Kilner, from his own military experience to what lies ahead for this class of cadets going forward, profoundly takes these principled words to heart.
“Those are words that become very concrete in the military experience in that many times service is hard, sacrifice is tragic, but it is also incredibly meaningful,” Kilner said. “It’s lifetime bonds. It’s really what makes the military profession what it is, it’s why there are such strong bonds. It’s why whether you served three years or 30 years, or whether you die at 95 or you’re killed at 25, there is a sense that it is a life well lived because it is a life fundamentally lived of self-sacrifice in service and commitment to others, and I think that is really at the heart of what it means to be a good human being.”
Class of 2023 Cadet Melic Belong, Company B-3, offered final words on what the “Inspiration to Serve” meant to him and its lasting impression in a short write-up he provided to SCPME following the event.
“The Inspiration to Serve event was impactful, it gave me an opportunity to pause and reflect on the gravity of the job I wish to undertake,” Belong wrote. “It filled me with pride to see all of those who have come before me and allowed me to feel a deep sense of connection to the past. It reinforced my respect for the responsibilities I have now and for the ones I will have in the future.
“As I walked around with my classmates by my side, I was reminded of the love and appreciation I have for them. Each tombstone is representative of something more; it is more than merely a name etched in stone,” he added. “Each stone represents a life lived in service to the ideals we hold dear. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, public servants and Soldiers. They dedicated their lives to service, like we intend to do. Reflecting on their efforts brings a special weight to the solemn obligation of serving and leading in our nation’s Army.
“It highlights the unique and awesome responsibility we all have to become our best selves; to become worthy of the trust emplaced in us by our Soldiers and by the American people. I do not know if it is possible to ever become truly worthy of such trust, but I do know that every day I will strive to be better than I was the last,” Belong concluded. “I imagine that one day my own tombstone will reside here with my last name etched in stone. I am comforted with the thought that some cadet, further along the Long Gray Line, will come across it and be inspired like I was. I am honored to be associated with such brave men and women. They lived lives of service and it is only fitting that, even in death, they serve as a profound source of inspiration for generations to come.”