Opinion: How Westport helped me at West Point
Our town's culture doesn't seem to include a sense of connection to the military. The prevailing attitude is that armed service is simply foreign: something to be viewed on CNN and read about in The New Yorker, something that most of us don't even consider as a possibility. In my life, the intersection between Westport and West Point has been uncanny, which begs the question: why doesn't the military play a larger role in our town's social fabric?
Some background: I'm a 2007 Staples graduate, and I'm now a junior at the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating next May, I'll have the honor of being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Staples, and Westport as a whole, prepared me well for Beast Barracks (our basic training) and the rest of the West Point experience. Here's how:
Academics at Staples are second-to-none. Students who proactively pursue their own educations (and the best teachers) can acquire a phenomenal foundation. Given our town's local taxes, this shouldn't shock many Westporters -- but I certainly didn't appreciate it until I left.
West Point has perhaps the most diverse enrollment of any college in the country, because candidates compete for admission largely on the basis of their congressional districts. Some of my classmates went to high schools without the resources or diverse curriculum of Staples, and after almost three years, I'm grateful for having the Westport advantages.
I'm an international relations major with a concentration in mechanical engineering. At the academy, all cadets study a varied curriculum: everything from engineering and differential calculus to philosophy, foreign language and history. When some of my classmates struggled applying the "what" of theories and equations to assessments, I drew on the reservoir of "why" and "how" that I learned in our superlative classrooms from teachers such as Mr. Scrofani, Mr. Hansen, and Mr. Wetzel. I doubtlessly would have had trouble tackling countless English, history and social sciences papers if it wasn't for Ms. Whiting, Mr. Young, Ms. Comm, and countless others. Rather than telling me what to think, they showed me how to think, and they sparked a curiosity that let me ask the piercing questions that form the basis of good writing.
Playing for four years as a wide receiver under Marce Petroccio probably prepared me the most for life in the military. Football was a constant endeavor, which my teammates and I referred to half-jokingly as "the grind." When we weren't playing games, we were weightlifting, conditioning, or refining skills at a smattering of training camps.
As (at least in my case) scrawny sophomores, my class shared the burden of being pulverized as the "scout team" in service to the starting squad; practices often entailed lining up for three hours a day against the feared likes of Pat Scott or Brian Levine. We achieved an unparalleled sense of brotherhood and camaraderie, working together for years in hopes of reaping the coveted symbol of victory: a state championship ring.
In the military, there is no alternative to victory; the bottom-line mentality pervades every aspect of life. For example, it's customary for cadets to salute passing officers and greet them with "Beat Navy," which elicits a returned salute and occasionally the response, "Beat terrorism." Staples, and especially Staples football, prepared me for that mentality, as well as for the military routine; having endured "the grind" for four years already, the daily gauntlet of Beast was nothing new to me. I also found in West Point what I had hoped to continue from my time at Staples: membership in a cohesive band of brothers.
Westport teenagers are notoriously ambitious. Intellectually, they want to be in the fold -- to seek the best educations, to meet the major players in politics and society at large, in short, to experience and manifest excellence. West Point offers an exclusive and unique venue for pursuing excellence; our gray uniforms open doors. I have had the honor of meeting and speaking at length with the Secretary of Defense, the CEO of General Electric, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the deputy director of the CIA, President Barack Obama's top health care adviser, foreign generals and other similar figures. As a 21-year-old student of international politics, the ability to cite the Secretary of Defense in a paper appeals to me -- and likely would appeal to throngs of college-bound Staples students.
The options are limitless: this summer, I'm working with a think tank in Washington, D.C., to study China's military. Last summer, I traveled (on government per diem) to Paris, Versailles, Normandy, Brussels, Luxembourg, Frankfurt and Berlin to earn academic credit while studying the economics of the European Union, all while meeting ambassadors, European Central Bank officials, renowned scholars and high-ranking NATO officers.
Finally, for someone seeking adventure -- as the Westporters I know seem inclined to do -- the military is hard to rival. I've jumped out of airplanes, rappelled out of helicopters, shot dozens of types of weapons and witnessed military leadership in action with a lieutenant in the elite 82nd Airborne Division. My story is not unique; most cadets have taken advantage of similar opportunities.
The foremost opportunity that West Point offers, however, is the honor of leading American soldiers. Joining the military during a war creates the distinct possibility of doing so in Afghanistan. For all of our town's superlative qualities, it's surprising that more Westporters don't view that as an option. While clearly a daunting prospect, it's a prospect that is closer in line with the values and goals of Westporters than many realize.
Disclaimer: The view presented in this piece is the author's alone; it in no way reflects the stance or policy of the U.S. Military Academy, Army or government.