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At West Point, New Breed of Cadet

Military: Since Sept. 11, grads have a clearer sense of mission. They're also 'the new Beatles.'

June 01, 2002|JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST POINT, N.Y. — When President Bush today addresses the first students to graduate from West Point since Sept. 11, he will encounter a class of cadets who have flocked to a new course on terrorism and are clamoring to join the infantry.

Their shifting interests underscore what is described as a new clarity of mission at the U.S. Military Academy, whose students were compelled to stay close by their books as the World Trade Center crumbled an hour's drive away and have since watched recent graduates return from Afghanistan with stories of a war in which the Army took center stage.

Professors and student-soldiers alike describe the class of 2002, an especially bright group that won a record number of graduate scholarships, as closer and more serious than its predecessors.

What has changed is the mood of an institution whose students feel a renewed sense of the vulnerability of their homeland that inspired the academy's creation by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802.

"Now we know what our objective is," said graduating Cadet David Chang, 22, of Sacramento. "We're all saying, 'Let's roll.'"

"It's changed the way I look at my job," said Stacy Gervelis, 21, of Seattle, whose first assignment as a military police officer in Heidelberg, Germany, begins in September. "I think everybody here takes things more seriously. It makes you look closer at preparing yourself."

Instructors say the cadets show a focus they have not seen since at least the Persian Gulf War. Students are asking harder questions about what they'll be doing when they leave and are making bolder choices, academy officials say. A sharply higher proportion of this year's graduates is choosing infantry over such options as intelligence or artillery.

One hallmark of the current war has been the decisive role played by American foot soldiers, the infantrymen whose role in recent years had been eclipsed by air power and other elements of the war machine.

"You don't get the idea here that these kids are going to avoid the hard stuff," said Col. Russ Howard, head of the academy's social sciences department.

Howard and another West Point professor have co-written a new terrorism textbook that is being rushed into print.

The strong public support for the war on terrorism sharply contrasts with the ambivalence or opposition toward the Vietnam War, as was noted during class reunions on the grounds of the hallowed institution this week.

Several alums noted that they faced a more controversial battleground in Vietnam, uncertainty about their support and about the leaders who sent them there.

"I think the youngsters find it exciting now that we've got a sense of mission," said Brig. Gen. Daniel J. Kaufman, dean of West Point's academic board and a 1968 graduate and Vietnam veteran.

"Suddenly now the world is a much more dangerous place," he said. "The nation is at risk again. The notion that the American homeland is vulnerable is new to all of us. Given where we sit--50 miles from ground zero--there is a sense of immediacy there."

They are buoyed by public support for soldiers that has been unprecedented in their lifetimes. Tomi Krmpotich, a 22-year-old graduating cadet from Bellingham, Wash., recalled the screams from a line of young girls as he and his fellow cadets visited Ellis Island recently.

"The cheers we got in the line to the ferry were so passionate that one of the security guards said, 'You guys are the new Beatles,'" recalled Krmpotich, whose next assignment is in Germany. "I hope that doesn't sound conceited, sir. But that's such a nice change."

Said classmate Chang: "I guess they do see the future in our hands. It's very reassuring that we're not alone, and very different for us than for those who graduated and went to Vietnam."

The class of 2002 will begin active duty as second lieutenants with a five-year commitment to military service and an education that emphasizes a military history dominated by the "long, gray line" of past graduates, from the commanders of both sides in the Civil War--Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant--to Desert Storm commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Before West Point was an academy, it was a military fortification during the Revolutionary War, created in 1778 by Gen. George Washington, who made it his headquarters a year later.

Now the cadets can learn from a more contemporary breed of officer, such as 30-year-old alumnus Jason Amerine. He is a Green Beret captain whose team led Hamid Karzai, now Afghanistan's interim prime minister, to victory in southern regions of that country and is now returning to West Point to study and teach.

Curriculum changes took effect in January. The academy, which halved its language requirements in 1989, has restored and added language and culture class requirements for most students, reflecting the growing likelihood that young soldiers will find themselves overseas.

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