WEST POINT, N.Y. (Jan. 25, 2012) -- Five hundred is a celebrated number at West Point this time of year for one class in particular.
It's the number that marks the time remaining until graduation and commissioning as Army officers for cadets in the Class of 2013. On Jan. 21, those cadets celebrated their 500th Night with a formal reception and banquet.
"It's our night," Class of 2013 Cadet Ryan Herrmann said. "It's our one night to celebrate as a class … we celebrate our unity, our successes and our lessons learned."
If every cadet experience at West Point is considered a learning opportunity, the same can be said about 500th Night. Cadets demonstrated the social aspects of wearing a uniform as they mingled with senior officers and noncommissioned officers, rendering appropriate courtesies while presenting a proper military bearing in the formal setting at Eisenhower Hall.
Cadet Hostess Sharyn Amoroso provided the etiquette briefing to review protocol for receiving lines, escorting duties, introductions and greeting. Cadets learned how to deliver formal toasts as well as proper reception and dining etiquette. Under the direction of their class advisors, cadets were instructed on how to prepare and execute the official program from start to finish.
"All of these skills help to develop them as polished and confident officers, in keeping with the mission of developing an 'officer and a gentleman,' and lady, too," Amoroso said.
Even the keynote address, delivered this year by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided sage words for the cadets to absorb before departing for the weekend.
"As brave as it was for your parents to drop you off here on R-Day, your choice to come to West Point speaks of your courage too," Dempsey said. "It speaks of your character and your dedication as individuals and now as a class."
The cadets came of age in a time when terrorism and war prevailed and both cynicism and heroism resonated during two wars that dominated current events throughout their childhood, Dempsey said.
"You arrived to West Point in June of 2009 ready to give it your all," Dempsey said. "That's what it means to be a member of the Class of 2013. In spite of changing attitudes and changing missions, you have kept faith with the obligation of free men and women to defend the free world. Ready, as your class motto says, to defend the dream."
Class of 2013 Cadet Nick Pyskir, class secretary, said Dempsey spoke of trust as the cornerstone of military service.
"He related this theme to our class by emphasizing our commitment to the idea that America is both good and worthy of our sacrifice," Pyskir said. "The culmination of his speech was a warning that our role models--including the officers seated among us--were at the end of their careers. It was our turn to serve with distinction, and he reminded us that he trusted us with the Army and with the responsibility that we have chosen to assume."
Dempsey assured the cadets they will make a difference after leaving West Point.
"Like the Long Gray Line that has gone before you, we expect--actually we demand--that you be leaders of character for our nation," Dempsey said. "We expect you to appreciate that leadership is a gift. It is given by those who follow and you have to be worthy of it. The men and women you are going to be responsible for are really the greatest on earth. They're the strength of our nation, and that's just not a phrase. Make sure you're getting ready to lead them. If you're not, rededicate yourself to that effort ... you have 500 days left."
Pyskir said Dempsey also provided a few laughs when he joked about their class grade point average and recollected how the cadets ended their Cadet Basic Training in a heavy downpour.
Given the day's snowfall, Dempsey even suggested to the superintendent of possibly changing the tradition that originated 50 years ago.
"Based on the weather, I personally think in future years we ought to celebrate 400th Night," Dempsey said.
Following the speech, the Class of 2013 presented Dempsey with a charitable donation in his name in the amount of $1,000 to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Traditionally, honored guests have received commemorative plaques and glass-encased sabers as gifts. Since Dempsey makes it a policy not to receive gifts, the cadets decided to go a non-traditional route.
"That led us to conclude that we couldn't find a better way to honor Gen. Dempsey's commitment to our country and its men and women in uniform than to express our appreciation by making a donation to TAPS in his name," Pyskir said. "We hope that our gesture, in accordance with Gen. Dempsey's emphasis on keeping faith with our military family, will express our gratitude better than a display item could."
Pyskir said TAPS provides a comprehensive set of services for the families and loved ones of servicemembers who have lost their lives, and the West Point Class of 2013 Charitable Giving Campaign has been established to support that organization (www.taps.org).
On the surface, 500th Night seems more a "plus one" occasion for cadets, though many couples share the weekend in group outings. Class president Timothy Berry said cadets spend a lot of time planning the perfect weekend itinerary prior to scattering throughout the New York area.
While he was busy as class president making 500th Night preparations, Berry was grateful for his friends who made most of the weekend arrangements.
"This year we decided to get a house in the lower west side of Manhattan, have dinner at the Harvard Club and spend the night out in New York City," Berry said. "I'm really excited, but that is really what this weekend is all about … just fellowshipping with friends, which I think is essential to making it through West Point in general."