Rising at 5 a.m. on a Saturday is not usually my style, but for the commencement exercises at West Point, with guest speaker President Barack Obama, well, I can make exceptions. By 6:30 a.m., the roads leading to West Point, situated on the west side of the Hudson River, about 90 minutes north of New York City, were already crowded with families from around the country.
License plates from Indiana, Missouri, Maine, and others made the slow crawl along Route 218S, through the gate, eventually to one of the many parking lots. Instructions with my press credentials stated that due to heavy security, latecomers were not guaranteed admittance. Inside the West Point gates, I could see why. There were plenty of armed Secret Service Police, a few bomb-sniffing Labrador retrievers, and come near 9:30 a.m., men in black suits, sunglasses, and little wires leading from their neck collars up to their ears. The President was on his way.
Michie Field is typically the playing field for the friendly(?) football rivalries of West Point (Army), Navy and Air Force. Today, under partly cloudy skies, it was the setting for the U.S. Military Academy Graduation Class of 2010, the 212th such event, and the 31st class to graduate women. In fact, this was the first time ever the two top awards went to females, one for highest Grade Point Average, (Valedictorian – Cadet Alexandra P. Rosenberg), and highest cumulative Cadet Performance (Cadet Elizabeth A. Betterbed).
After the awe-inspiring march-in of the cadets, remarks by the various high-ranking West Point officers, there came a long, hushed pause. Almost ten minutes passed without a word. The cadets, all roughly 1,000 of them, sat shoulder to shoulder, their gold sabers clunking the metal bleachers. A few shout-outs from the stands brought chuckles, but as time went on, the audience was growing restless. Was he late? Was he not going to show?
Then, in the distance, behind the podium, a long row of cars appeared, and the crowd let out a big cheer. Within a few minutes, the United States Military Academy Band was readying for the traditional playing of “Here Comes the Chief.” A clear voice soon rang out, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
Almost 15 rows of tightly packed future soldiers sat and waited for their name to be called so they could stand, move to the stage, receive their diploma and shake hands with their Commander in Chief. In a stirring, sobering speech, President Obama noted proudly that these graduates signed on during a time of war, “knowing that they would be put into harm’s way.” In a lighter moment, the President took advantage of his rank of “chief” and granted amnesty “to the Corps for minor disciplinary actions.” And to that, a loud laugh and cheer went out.
As name and after name was announced, fist pumps, hugs, and the biggest grins ever seen became the theme of the rest of the day, almost as if a giant “relief” came over the class once a majority of them got their rolled document.
Then with their right hands raised, they took the oath officially ranking them as Second Lieutenants. Their next assignment: take a short vacation, before heading to their post; most going off to the infantry, and most likely somewhere near Afghanistan.
As the event drew to a close, with the USMA Alma Mater and benediction completed, the press corps got into position to record a long-standing concluding tradition: the hat toss. Only the kids in the crowd, from ages six to ten, and between 42 and 54 inches tall, could run out into the sea of hats to try and claim one. Hats may have a dollar pinned to the inside, or a note, sometimes a picture. The sentiment seemed to signal the passing of the torch to the next generation. President Obama said these new soldiers represent “…leaders of character and champions of freedom.”