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Marching into West Point different than expected

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WEST POINT, N.Y. » So this is the place.

This is the sacred ground where Grant, Lee, Custer, MacArthur, Pershing, Eisenhower and Patton learned soldiering fundamentals and the basics of leading troops into battle.

And this is Michie Stadium, where Blanchard, Davis and Dawkins won Heisman trophies, where three national championships were earned.

We spent an hour at the United States Military Academy yesterday — where Army hosts Hawaii in a football game Saturday — and on first impression I was struck more by what I didn’t see than what I did.

No one doing push-ups.

No one barking out orders, no upperclassman or cadre hazing plebes.

No weapons firing. No noise of helicopters. No bugles. No cadets marching in formation.

No background checks or paperwork other than a driver’s license required from civilian visitors. We explained who we were, what we were doing there, and drove right on in.

"Show your ID at the next checkpoint," a courteous guard told Stephen Tsai and me. "And drive safely."

Way easier than, say, getting on a plane.

Fortunately for us, aging sportswriters from Hawaii rank pretty low on the national security threat scale.

I’M NOT sure exactly what I expected, but I thought it would be a little more, well … military. The officers, enlisted personnel and cadets all looked and acted sharp, there was nothing wrong with their bearing. I wouldn’t describe the vibe as casual or lax; it’s just that the people in charge weren’t ogres (although I’m sure they can be when needed), and those where stuff rolls down to didn’t seem like they were being covered by it 24/7.

Maybe I watch too many movies and read too many books, and my image of the academy’s caste system is more myth than reality. Maybe things have changed with time. But we all know this is a unique place, where all kinds of interesting challenges await young men and women striving to become Army leaders.

Gil Tam of Honolulu is a 1970 West Point graduate. He said the time of day of our visit probably played into my impressions.

"Everything starts up at 6 a.m. and there’s a lot of early activity," he said. "Much has changed in required formations, such as meals. When we were there you formed up and marched into meals. Now you can skip them."

Tam said if it’s military pomp and circumstance you want, that’s what you’ll get on a Saturday when the Black Knights play at home. The entire Corps of Cadets will be on parade 2 hours before kickoff.

"Wait until you get to the game," Tam said. "Huge difference. The cadets standing the entire game, organized cheering like you’ll see nowhere else."

OUR MISSION yesterday was to interview some Army football players and head coach Rich Ellerson. Mission accomplished.

Talking with junior defensive back and engineering major Antuan Aaron, I was reminded of how military officer candidates don’t have summers off, even if they’re football players. Aaron spent his learning the finer points of artillery spotting, quartermastering and military policing at Fort Sill, Okla.

As Ellerson, who was a Naval Academy midshipman, said, "Football’s not the only hard thing we do. We do hard things all day long."

Of course there’s plenty of academic and soldierly stuff happening all the time at West Point — most of it was just going on where I didn’t see it, or I was too jet-lagged to notice after a 10-hour flight and being up more than 24 hours.

Nobody likes being sleep deprived. That’s hard to complain about, though, when you’re visiting with West Point cadets.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/davereardon.

 

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