By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneJanuary 28, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- For Gail O'Sullivan Dwyer, there is no escaping second place.
Despite being among some 60 women to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy in the early years of women's acceptance at West Point, despite going on to have a successful career both on active duty and in the Reserves, and despite being married to a fellow West Point graduate and raising four successful children, Dwyer still thinks of herself as being in second place.
But it is an honorable place to be.
Dwyer was in the second West Point graduating class that included women. While the first female West Point graduates were commissioned in 1980, Dwyer was destined to follow in their footsteps in women's second year at the academy. And, with her graduation, she also became the second sibling in her family to graduate from West Point, with her brother Paul beating her to those bragging rights in 1974.
"My older brother graduated in 1974. Paul is eight years older than me. He was my idol when we were going up, but he wouldn't give me the time of day," Dwyer recalled.
"So, when I was in fifth-grade and Paul was going off to West Point, I decided I would go to West Point, too. I didn't know anything about West Point or the military, but I was determined to go to West Point."
Dwyer did just that, with the help of Congress, which passed a bill in 1976 that allowed women to attend West Point. During her four years at the military academy, she faced prejudices and discrimination. But Dwyer also experienced the joy of great accomplishments, of meeting seemingly insurmountable goals and of knowing she was walking a new path that other women would follow.
She shares her experiences in a book that mixes her personal experiences with the traditions of West Point. "Tough As Nails - One Woman's Journey Through West Point" is an endearing, humorous and inspiring account of a woman who comes of age while attending the nation's top military college.
The book follows her as a high school student, waiting for her West Point acceptance letter, and as a plebe and an upperclassman as she learns the responsibility of leadership and meets her future husband, Steve Dwyer. It ends with her graduation and her gratitude for taking the path less traveled.
Dwyer's journey through West Point began with an adolescent, wishy-washy fascination that eventually bloomed into a confident, disciplined, proud and accomplished second lieutenant.
"I did have mixed feelings about going to West Point and I did get mixed signals from my family," Dwyer said. "In 1976, I called my brother to see what he thought about women at West Point. At the time, he didn't think women should go there. And my father thought the same thing.
"But, later, my father and brother both said if women can apply, then I should apply and see if I can get in. We were all surprised in our own ways when I did get in. But then my dad asked me 'Do you think you should start running or something''"
Although Dwyer was physically in shape at only 5-foot-3 and 99 pounds, being physically fit didn't get her into West Point. It was her academics and extracurricular activities that made her a good candidate.
"I got in because I was a nerd in high school," she said. "I wasn't gifted. But I worked really hard and so I got good grades. I was also in tons of clubs and activities (including varsity cheerleading). But with athletics, I fell woefully short. I was told I would be back home within a year, that I would not be able to hang physically."
That estimation didn't take into account Dwyer's strong work ethic, persistence or determination.
"I was willing to work really hard. I was willing to practice and do whatever I had to do to make it at West Point," she said. "It was challenging. But I did everything that I had to do. Everyone expected me to fail. But I didn't."
There were 120 women in Dwyer's West Point class as first-year plebes. By the time she graduated, 50 percent had dropped out.
"I was at an advantage because I understood where my brother and father were coming from with their doubts about women at West Point. I knew there was a tradition that we were going against," Dwyer said. "Our reception at West Point was not great. They didn't greet us with the welcome wagon."
Her book is filled with accounts of her experiences at West Point - both good and bad, challenging and inspiring. Throughout her West Point experience, Dwyer tried to take into consideration the feelings her male counterparts were struggling with at a time of transition for the school.
"I felt bad for guys who thought we were ruining their school," she said. "My thinking was to quietly do this and show them that women do have a place at West Point. I think that attitude really helped as opposed to 'I am woman. Hear me roar.' A quiet professionalism helped me to not meet as much resistance."
Although Dwyer is aware of the stories of sexual harassment and assault that have been told by women in the first class at West Point, she said she didn't experience anything like that. It's those accounts that drove Dwyer to share her more positive experiences through her own book.
"I wanted to tell the positive story because West Point was a positive experience in my life," she said. "Yes, I experienced some resistance. There were some who didn't want us there and let us know that. But most just didn't care or decided to accept the decision of women at West Point and be professional about it."
When she graduated from West Point, Dwyer carried with her the values and beliefs shared by all West Point graduates - the concepts of duty, honor and country, the honor code and the commitment to leadership. And she completed the experience with many long-lasting friendships.
Yet, upon graduation, Dwyer nearly wasn't commissioned because of a long undiagnosed hearing problem.
"My hearing problem never affected me at West Point," said Dwyer. "We didn't have a phone in our dorm room until we were seniors. And I thought everyone had problems hearing the instructors in the classrooms. Because of my hearing, I had to fight for my commission. But I got it and served in military intelligence. I got my first hearing aid during my first assignment. Three years after graduation, I had two hearing aids."
Dwyer served five years in military intelligence and then later joined the Reserves as an admissions representative. She retired as a Reserve lieutenant colonel in 2005. Along the way, she and her West Point sweetheart, Steve Dwyer, got married - three days after her graduation, in fact -- and had four children. Dwyer returned to West Point in 2000 when her husband was assigned there, and she coached the women's marathon team.
"I would tell the girls stories during our runs. I would encourage them," she said. "In turn, they encouraged me to write down my stories and to share them. I tried to get them published in 2002, but my book was rejected."
At an anniversary celebration of women at West Point in 2006, Dwyer sat in the audience, listening to a lot of negative stories from other female graduates. Their stories inspired Dwyer to find a way to share hers and in September 2009 her book was finally published by Hellgate Press.
Profits from the book are going to fund cadet activities at West Point and scholarships for the academy's summer leadership seminar.
Besides writing, Dwyer is an active member of the West Point Society and serves as Alabama's admissions representative for West Point. Her husband retired in 2009 as a colonel and the family moved to Huntsville, where he works for a defense contractor.
The Dwyer's oldest son -- 2nd Lt. Stephen Dwyer -- is a 2009 West Point graduate now stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., while son Tim is a junior cadet at West Point. Son Chris graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in 2009 and is an elementary physical education teacher. Daughter Maria is now a senior at Bob Jones High School. In 2009, Dwyer's husband retired as a colonel, and the family moved to Huntsville, where he works in industry.
"I wouldn't have a story to tell if it wasn't for West Point," Dwyer said. "And writing my story so much later after graduation, I can see the humor in it. Now, I have one son who graduated from West Point and one that is attending West Point. They are using West Point in the right way as a vehicle to be an Army officer. I went to West Point just for West Point, and came out an officer."