By Mike Strasser, U.S. Military Academy Public AffairsJune 27, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. (June, 27, 2012) -- It's all about precision and attention to details leading up to Reception Day as the cadet cadre prepares to welcome in the new cadets to the Class of 2016 on Monday.
The Pointer View newspaper held a roundtable discussion with some of the regimental staff earlier this week to get a sense of just how prepared they are to lead the Class of 2016 when they arrive here for R-Day. Sitting down for this interview were Cadets James Whittington, the Cadet Basic Training regimental commander, Brenna Heisterman, the regimental executive officer, and Ariana Mankus, the regimental command sergeant major.
The amount of planning involved is staggering, and the number of nuances enormous, to pull off an event that essentially begins the transformation of civilians into West Point cadets and future Army officers. The weeks spent in the Leader Training Program, coordinating with various support agencies and practicing with rehearsals have instilled a confidence, from the regimental staff to the cadre of company, platoon and squad leaders in their ability to provide instruction and leadership to the incoming cadet class. On Friday, a mock R-Day rehearsal will bring hundreds of role-players together to test how well cadets can execute the initial entry into West Point for the new class.
So how much preparation was there, exactly? Think of the logistics behind synchronizing and coordinating transportation, and making sure more than 1,100 new cadets receive everything from socks to sun block, underwear to eyewear. The CBT commander quantified it like this: "A ton."
Whittington: "Basically the plan for R-Day involves a pretty extensive process behind it. It's the biggest event held at the academy each year, so there's a lot of moving parts and a lot of coordination with different agencies that have to come together to accomplish this unified task. We have to ensure that companies have support down at Ike Hall as they bring the new cadets over to Thayer Hall for in-processing and to receive their initial issue items--their uniforms and other basic things they'll need for at least the first few days. After that, they'll come to the central area with their companies…and then that's where our main objective lies. Making sure the cadets in the companies understand how to teach them drill, make sure everything is moving according to our timeline--getting them to lunch, getting their haircuts. There's a lot of moving parts and a lot of memorization involved."
New cadets will spend a lot of time that day pouring over their Cadet Handbook, or smart book, which contains all the knowledge they'll be required to know verbatim any time they are asked by a ranking cadet. They'll also learn how to report to a superior officer, how to salute, march and maintain their uniforms and rooms the West Point way. Timing is crucial on R-Day because at the end of it, there will be bleachers full of families, friends and guests awaiting the new cadets' as they step onto the Plain for the first time to march in a parade.
Mankus: "In preparation for the parade drilling will be very important. New cadets who have never been exposed to the military environment will have to be taught how to march, how to execute facing movements and other military movements."
But what will be the hardest lesson learned?
Whittington: "Everything. For many this day will be their first impression of West Point, what cadets are about and even about the Army, so it is essential that we start them off right."
Mankus: "It's basically a culture shock for them. Most of them have never been in an environment like this before, and everything they've known no longer applies. They start here knowing nothing, so they have to follow and wait for guidance."
The cadets who will be providing that guidance know the stress of R-Day all too well, and many have R-Day experience beyond that of a plebe, having led cadets as squad leaders or platoon sergeants before. The concept throughout the cadre is to set the ground work for building leaders of character.
Whittington: "We bring people here to become leaders. They will make mistakes, and we will let them know in a professional way that they've made a mistake and what they did wrong. The end state is about developing leaders."
Heisterman: "I think you gain a totally new perspective of R-Day than what you had three years ago, but for that same reason you can relate to the new cadets and remember what it was like experiencing that stress. So you have a certain level of empathy for the new cadets because they don't have any idea of how things work around here. I guess in some ways you have to cater to their needs and teach them at whatever level they're at."
Whittington: "One of the things we wanted to change was that experience of doing something as a new cadet and not knowing why. I think for us, we're focused on getting them to understand why they are being asked to do certain things. There's a reason behind everything--having to memorize a certain knowledge we have to do, there's a reason for wearing your uniform properly. We want them to know without a shadow of doubt the reason behind everything."
CBT is a training program for new cadets but also serves as a leadership challenge for cadre. Mankus had previously served as a squad leader and Whittington was a platoon sergeant last year.
Mankus: "For me personally, the guidance and instruction that I give for the cadre may not always going to be popular. But having served as a squad leader before I understand that perspective of receiving orders from the regimental level and thinking, why are we doing this? The challenge is remembering what that's like, and if I'm putting out guidance that I know will not be popular I have to consider how the cadre will react. One of the biggest things I'm learning is how to take into account those squad leaders and platoon sergeants who don't get a say in what is being passed down."
Heisterman: "I was a first sergeant for my academic year company and that's a totally different role than executive officer. The focus then was on company discipline and maintaining standards, whereas the XO is running the staff and making sure the commander's intent is executed, the companies are taken care of, transportation is there when it is needed, meals are planned on time. It's hard because if a bad decision is made, or something isn't planned out well or you didn't run your staff correctly, it will literally affect every single person in the regiment. It's a hard lesson to learn when it impacts a lot of people, but it's been a good learning experience so far."
Whittington: "Having been a part of this detail for a third time, I've become familiar with the flow of things. I've seen things I liked and didn't like and saw how we could tailor things to go in the direction we all decided to go. There's always a new way to do things and everyone comes into these leadership positions with different ideas. I thought it was important that we communicated what our end state goals were to the lowest levels. It's extremely important for us to communicate information from top to bottom, at every level. I know sometimes you're told to do something by a commander and don't know why, so for us, it will be important to talk directly to our squad leaders because they have the most interaction with new cadets. The squad leaders will know what makes them tick, and if they understand why they're doing a particular task it's about understanding the overall goals we're trying to accomplish and then they can tailor those things to the needs of their new cadets."
So for both cadre and new cadets, it's not just about doing what you're told, but knowing why you're told to do it. That can be a lot of information to absorb, process and remember every single day. The days can get quite exhausting, with the 5 a.m. wake-up call taking them into a day of formations, training, athletics and their heads won't hit the rack at night until after Taps is played at 10 p.m.
The new cadets will earn a few hours of respite from training on July 22 during Cadet Visitation Day at which time the regimental staff and cadre will formally relinquish command to a new group of cadet leadership in what is expected to be a seamless transition from CBTI to CBTII. The first group has introduced the new cadets to the history and traditions of West Point and led them through the first salvo of physical and military training that will progressively become more demanding until Acceptance Day in August.
Whittington: "It's very key that first and foremost we create a successful system, a battle rhythm for CBTII to step right into. One of my goals is to create no disparity in battle rhythm between commands. We understand that we can't mimic leadership styles, and if anything, that could be good for the new cadets. What can't change is the way we operate, and so we wanted to create an effective system. Our success is defined by the training and we practice outcomes-based training here, so accomplishing that through an effective system is our goal."
One way cadets create a distinct vision during CBT is by naming their task force and creating a challenge for new cadets toward the end of their command. Typically, the task force honors a fallen graduate and previous iterations of task forces and challenges have bore the names of Patton, Goeke or Hidalgo and their stories are repeated throughout training for inspirational and educational value.
Whittington: "We decided to go a different route by naming our task force after an enlisted Soldier, Spc. Ross McGinnis, who is a Medal of Honor recipient and was killed in 2006 when he threw himself over a grenade in his Humvee. We made this decision with no intention of discrediting any of our fellow members of the Long Gray Line. Spc. McGinnis was a 19-year-old man when he died, and his story could really relate to the age group of the new cadets coming here. We thought his story would reflect well upon cadets to get them exposed to the type of Soldier they will be expected to lead someday, and what they need to do within the next 47 months to be prepared for the honor of leading these Soldiers."
At the end of the day, the regimental staff and cadre want to assure the families of these new cadets that West Point will take care of them.
Whittington: "I want them to know they can trust us and everyone here has their best interests in mind. They've made the right decision by coming to West Point, not only because they're joining a profession that prides itself on excellence but they're joining an institution that prides itself on assuring that those cadets will achieve that greatness. They are not separate from us--separate only in the sense of rank--but not in the sense of being part of the Corps of Cadets. We're all cadets and no matter what we will always be together through the Long Gray Line. No matter what, they are us and we are them. So we'll be sure to take care of them."
Mankus: "These new cadets are entering such a great profession and institution dedicated to excellence. Although they haven't experienced anything yet, they will get so much here and it will go by so fast. It is worth the journey. I have always been a big believer that it isn't about the destination but the journey, and the journey that starts on R-Day will set the pace for four years of a lot of difficulties and maybe heartache, but also a lot of great things. Throughout the good, the bad and the ugly, you're never, ever alone. There are so many great people around you, and so much support in family, friends, teachers…I am excited for their future."
Heisterman: "It's going to be a hard road ahead but we'll be with them along the way, coaching and teaching them and doing our best to make sure they're successful and taken care of."
Most cadets would say Reception Day is one of the most stressful--if not memorable--days they'll ever have. If by chance a new cadet is reading this now and wanted some advice from their regimental officers on getting past R-Day and through CBT, this is what they'd provide:
Mankus: "Take everything one day at a time. One day at a time, one activity at a time and so on. This applies not only to Cadet Basic Training but throughout the academic year and in any stressful situation. Just hone in one thing, focus and get it done. One training event, one briefing, one test…once you start blending everything together you make it way too overwhelming. The days seem really long at first…but once you focus on one thing at a time, it goes by quicker and smoother."
Heisterman: "Be a sponge. Soak up everything, literally, you can from what we teach this summer and you'll come out better in the end."
Whittington: "Be a teammate. Don't look at this as a way to separate yourself from a group but rather how you can give something of yourself to assist the group."