Cadets face numerous obstacles during their tenure at the U.S. Military Academy, which forces them to overcome those plights — whether personal, academic or physical — while building a character base as future military leaders. As the USMA Class of 2021 cadets inch closer to their final objective at West Point by graduating at Michie Stadium Saturday, all the firsties were required to write a reflective essay on their readiness for officership as part of the MX400 (Officership) curriculum.
After 1,045 essays were submitted, five finalists were recognized for their introspective pieces as part of the 15th annual Gen. John J. Pershing Reflective Essay competition awards ceremony May 11 at the Haig Room in Jefferson Hall Library.
The top three cadets chosen for the Pershing Essay Awards and presented medallions were Class of 2021 Cadets Cameron Hudson (gold), DeMann Wilson (silver) and Sekou Matesso (bronze). Also recognized were honorable mention finalists Class of 2021 Cadets John Boyer and Scott Donnelion.
The MX400 (Officership) course, through the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, is the superintendent’s capstone course that requires cadets to reflect upon, integrate and synthesize their experiences in the West Point Leader Development System as they complete their transformation from cadet to officer.
Writing a reflective essay is part of the syllabus for the MX400 course, led by course director Lt. Col. Kenneth Segelhorst. All the firsties are expected to complete a reflective essay assignment on their personal experiences at West Point.
“We formally brief it around lesson seven after their second writing assignment,” Capt. Adam Wendoloski, MX400 instructor, said. “Usually, firsties start it after our second writing assignment, which gives them around 7-to-10 days to work on it.”
Wendoloski said there isn’t a word count minimum but a maximum of 2,000 words for the essay.
After all the essays are submitted, the selection process takes about two weeks. There are four members of the Pershing Essay selection committee panel — Wendoloski, retired Lt. Col. Dave Jones, Capt. Nadine Gamble and Capt. Tiarra McDaniel. All the panel members are MX400 instructors with SCPME and Wendoloski is the president of the selection committee this academic year.
The two-week selection process begins after the MX400 instructors finish grading the second semester Pershing essays. The panel then reviews about 20-30 papers each. After that, the MX400 instructors are asked to submit their top two Pershing essays for consideration by the panel. The top essays are placed in brackets and scored by the panel members with all getting read twice each to which the final scores determine the top five cadet awardees.
The essays allow the firsties to concentrate on their strengths, weaknesses and a plan of action as they get ready to become officers.
“It’s important for cadets to think about where they came from and where they are going,” Wendoloski said. “Most firsties have come full circle from plebe year and the essay is a deliberate effort to reflect on this. It is an opportunity for firsties to become more self-aware of how their strengths and weaknesses impact their character.
“The plan of action is a way for firsties to lean forward in their thinking, to think not as cadets, but as lieutenants,” Wendoloski added.
Wendoloski said he was impressed by the words of the top five finalists in their efforts to reflect on their West Point experience and the way forward on their journey ahead.
“The top essays exceptionally answered the prompt while reflecting on a deeply personal challenge,” Wendoloski said. “The writers demonstrated a willingness to step outside their comfort zone. The top essays conveyed how their experience shaped their development at the academy and how they plan to continue developing themselves after commissioning.
“The essays demonstrated substantial maturity and higher-level thinking,” he added.
Matesso, the Pershing essay bronze medallion recipient, didn’t honestly know that there was an award associated with the essay but was grateful to receive the award.
“I’m very honored that someone thought my reflection on my growth throughout the academy was worth recognition,” Matesso, a Fairburn, Georgia native, said.
Matesso said his essay focused on his forte in self-awareness and ability to plan.
“I expounded on how both strengths (in self-awareness and ability to plan) enabled me to develop a system that both keeps track of my progress and identifies my weaknesses in the things I care about,” Matesso said. “These things can range from spirituality, fitness, finances to relationships. I made a note that this system made my mind flexible in how I welcome and would adapt to challenges as an officer.”
The future field artillery officer said the MX400 course did an exceptional job in pushing him to ask the important questions about being a leader.
“There were plenty of discussions where I had to ask myself: what would I do in this scenario?” Matesso, a business management major, said. “Based on the answers to those questions, I have an idea of what things I need to personally change when considering the overall value I bring to an organization.”
The MX400 course and the essay helped Matesso crystalize things in his life, especially what is expected from him soon in the Army.
“There is value in writing down the things I truly care about,” Matesso said. “I ask myself: who would I want to be in the next couple of years? Writing down the objectives necessary to become that person puts things into perspective.”
Hudson, who earned the top prize as the Pershing essay gold medallion recipient, said she loved the process of writing the essay and appreciated that the SCPME and MX400 panel recognized her piece.
“There are few moments at the academy where cadets can find some peace and solitude to reflect on their experiences, and this essay was one of those moments,” Hudson, a Woodinville, Washington native, said. “I learned a lot about myself, who I am as a leader and the type of leader I want to be from writing this essay. I am grateful that the MX400 Officership course included this essay as a part of its curriculum.”
Hudson focused her essay on how she could still learn and grow from the personal challenges she faced as an underclassman at the academy.
“From these challenges, I learned the importance of forgiveness and how it is my responsibility to be an inclusive and empathetic leader for my future Soldiers,” Hudson said.
The Psychology major who is Pre-Med expressed that reflection, especially through the essay, is an “essential aspect of being a phenomenal leader.”
“This essay and my mentors at the academy have provided me the unique capacity to grow from my challenges and become a more confident leader,” Hudson said.
Both Hudson and Matesso thanked their family members, close friends and mentors at the academy and at home for helping them get to where they are today. Hudson added, “There have been many people who have helped me in my journey to become an officer … I recognize that without these people, I would not be the person that I am today.”
The Pershing Award was established in 2006 by retired Lt. Gen. John Cushman, USMA Class of 1944 graduate, with Anne Cabaniss, the widow of Cushman’s classmate, Jelks Cabaniss Jr., through the West Point Association of Graduates.
Cushman, who commanded the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, is featured with his brigade in an MX400 Black Hearts case study. The study highlights the incredible challenges of the combat environment and the critical importance of strong moral leadership at all levels during war. Cushman, who passed away in 2017, was committed to being a steward of the officer profession at West Point.
“Cushman created the award with the desire for cadets to reflect on how the academy has prepared them to serve as commissioned officers,” Wendoloski explained. “I think the challenges of the past year brought about greater reflection as cadets balanced COVID hardships with a demanding academic load.
“This year’s essay pool was highly competitive, and it reflects on the effort that many of the firsties put into their work,” he added. “This past year challenged the entire Corps of Cadets in a way that was not previously fathomed. The vast majority of firsties remained stalwart in their commitment to the profession in the face of hardship, which embodies Lt. Gen. Cushman’s vision and the spirit of the Pershing Award.”
The award is named after the USMA Class of 1886 graduate who served on the western frontier of the United States while leading the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment and then again leading them in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He would eventually command the entire Allied Expeditionary Force during World War I, making him one of the most important leaders ever produced by the academy.
Pershing, who earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his memoirs, “My Experiences in the World War,” penned a letter 33 years after graduating West Point in 1919 that explained how the academy always guided him through his military career. Now, much like Pershing wrote, the cadets expressed their thoughts and were awarded for what sets them up to be future leaders of character while living the motto, “Duty, Honor, Country.”
“I think the award represents the writer’s commitment to selfless service,” Wendoloski said. “Gen. Pershing endured substantial personal and professional hardships. He could have left the military, yet he persevered and remained on point for the nation. His hardships shaped his character and the fortitude he displayed during World War I.
“I think the writers demonstrated aspects of Pershing’s experience in their essays, despite personal hardships, and they remained on the path to officership and stayed committed to the nation,” he added.
Hudson summed up her thoughts of earning the essay award as being, “honored to be even remotely associated with Gen. John J. Pershing.”
“He was a phenomenal cadet who also faced his fair share of personal challenges,” Hudson concluded. “Despite these challenges, Gen. Pershing was still an inspirational leader to his Soldiers and an exemplary military leader.”