West Point: All spit and polish

By Rob McFarland

Obey orders and you'll survive famed West Point, writes Rob McFarland.

At graduation, tried-and-tested cadets toss their hats in the air.
At graduation, tried-and-tested cadets toss their hats in the air.

"Step up to my line. Do not step on my line. Do not step over my line. Step up to my line."

I stride towards the diminutive 22-year-old who has just barked this order at me, salute and attempt to repeat the passage I've been trying to memorise for the past 30 seconds.

"New cadet McFarland reports to the cadet in the red sash as, er ..." My mind goes blank.

The look of dismay on her face is palpable. "Go to the back of the line, new cadet."

On my fourth attempt I finally get it right but by this time my mind is racing, my heart is thumping and I'm starting to sweat. It's an uncomfortably realistic insight into what the future military leaders of the US will go through in three days' time.

I'm at the United States Military Academy at West Point, 80km north of New York, taking part alongside hundreds of other volunteers in mock R-Day, a rehearsal for the annual intake of new cadets.

Each year about 1200 18- to 23-year-olds are accepted into this prestigious military academy to begin a rigorous four-year course that will transform them from civilians into army officers.

We go through the stations where the cadets will be allocated their uniforms, have any piercings removed and their heads shaved (if they're men).

We're taught how to salute, how to stand to attention, how to recognise different army ranks and the four allowable responses to any question: "Yes, sir", "No, sir", "No excuse, sir" and "Sir, I do not understand".

Get something wrong and we're shouted at, antagonised and belittled. It's confronting and intimidating.

What surprises me most is how quickly I submit. Within minutes I'm staring straight ahead, arms by my side, ready to do whatever I'm told.

I'd always wondered how the army got people to perform the brutal acts required by war. Now I understand.

What is ironic is that the setting for all this military might is one of the most scenic spots in upstate New York.

West Point sits on a bend of the Hudson River and is surrounded by the lush, tree-covered slopes of the Hudson Valley. The summer retreats of some of New York's wealthiest families pepper the hillsides and it's hard to believe the frantic chaos of Manhattan is little more than an hour's drive away.

Closely linked to the academy is Thayer Hotel, which is the only hotel in the US that's on the campus of a military installation.

Housed in an impressive brick and stone building with commanding views over the valley, this historic 149-room hotel has recently been taken over by new owners (who, incidentally, are required to be West Point alumni) and has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation.

The hotel's MacArthur's Restaurant (named after General Douglas MacArthur) has been returned to its original 1920s grandeur with Gothic chandeliers, gold-trimmed columns and a pressed-tin ceiling. A modern fitness centre and spacious rooftop bar with beguiling river views have also been added.

Perhaps the most innovative initiative is the room-dedication scheme, in which rooms are named in honour of distinguished West Point graduates.

My well-appointed room is dedicated to Colonel Lee van Arsdale, who took part in the infamous Black Hawk Down operation in Somalia in 1993 and won a Purple Heart for his efforts. The walls are adorned with personal pictures and letters from fellow officers and actor Steven Ford, who portrayed him in the movie.

As I walk down the corridor I pass rooms dedicated to other notable graduates such as James Kimsey, the founder of AOL, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Over the years West Point has produced a steady succession of famous military leaders, including generals Grant, Lee, Eisenhower and Schwarzkopf. Although the military connections are relentless (West Point insignias on the plates in the restaurant, framed copies of the cadet code on display in the foyer), the atmosphere in the hotel is refreshingly relaxed and, at times, tongue-in-cheek.

My do-not-disturb sign reads: "Future Commander in Chief relaxing. Stand down."

The hotel organises a range of activities in the area such as horse riding, hiking and golf but what really sets it apart is its position within West Point itself.

Although the Reception Day rehearsal happens only once a year, guided tours of the campus run daily. They depart from the nearby West Point Visitors Centre, which has an excellent free museum that contains weaponry, military clothing and detailed analysis of some of history's most famous battles.

Our guide, Erin, graduated from West Point in 1995 and now works part-time leading campus tours that give an insight into life at the academy.

New cadets' first six weeks are spent in basic training, an intensive programme of long marches, mountaineering and tactical manoeuvres. The West Point website describes it as "challenging" and it's the period during which most cadets drop out.

Once they're back at West Point, cadets settle into a punishing regime of 5.30am starts, long days of training and study and precious little free time.

The reward for all this effort is one of the best free public college educations in the country, valued at about US$350,000 (NZ$430,000).

Of course, there are obligations. Cadets who leave during the first two years can walk away scot-free but if they leave after that then they must pay back the fees.

Cadets who graduate are committed to eight years' service - five years' active and three years in a reserve component.

Competition for places is fierce. West Point receives about 14,000 applications a year from some of the brightest, sportiest, most do-gooding kids in the country.

All must be nominated by a member of Congress but many go further. Erin secured nominations from the country's president and vice-president.

As we drive around campus, Erin points out some of the facilities: a 39,000-seat football stadium, three swimming pools, five gyms, a basketball arena and an ice rink. West Point is really a self-contained city, with its own police force, hospital, fire service and schools and more American flags than in any other place I've seen.

Our first stop is the Cadet Chapel, a beautiful stone church where cadets can get married once they've graduated (neither marriage nor having children is allowed while they're studying).

From here we can see the mess hall where, three times a day, 4400 cadets manage the miraculous act of lining up, marching in and eating (with freshmen serving older students) in just 20 minutes.

We finish at Trophy Point, where an imposing 14m-high granite column is dedicated to those who fought in the Civil War.

This is also the spot where the Americans stretched a 550m, 65-tonne chain across the Hudson in 1778 to stop British ships advancing during the American War of Independence. This event marked the birth of West Point as a military installation and it's now the oldest continuously garrisoned military base in the US.

As we drive back to the visitors centre we pass a playing field on which some second-year students are practising a marching drill under the midday sun. Dressed in matching khaki fatigues, their movements are sharp, co-ordinated and purposeful.

It reminds me of the refreshingly candid speech given by the general who thanked us all for volunteering at the end of R-Day: "We take the most talented people in the country, people who are used to being the best at everything they do and we strip them of their identity and build them back up again."

TRAVELLERS' TIP

Getting there: United Airlines flies from Auckland to New York via Los Angeles and San Francisco. West Point is a 90-minute drive or one-hour train ride from New York. The Hampton Luxury Liner coach service runs from Manhattan.

Where to stay: The Thayer Hotel.

Tours: Regular guided tours leave from the West Point Visitors Centre.

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of United Airlines and the Thayer Hotel.

- Herald on Sunday

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