Perhaps one of the lasting legacies of being a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point is that you do not leave your experiences behind you.
In the case of Col. John M. Bryant Jr. (Ret.) and for the more than 240 other graduates and widows of graduates who live in our area, the West Point Society of Arizona helps keep them in touch with their alma mater.
Bryant, who graduated from West Point the same year as the Kent State shootings, in 1970, can recall the dark mood the country was in as a result of a bitter war in Southeast Asia.
"We marched in Nixon's Inauguration (1969) and had things thrown at us by antiwar demonstrators," Bryant says. "We marched in every Armed Forces Day in New York City and had sticks tossed at us."
Having entered West Point in July of 1966, Bryant was to bear witness to a growing war across the Pacific and to feel its backlash on a personal level. But he remained steadfast and finished his studies, serving nearly 27 years in the army and retiring four years ago as a colonel.
It was not just a rough four years as a result of the Vietnam War, but also due to the physical changes that were taking place at the academy. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed an order increasing the class sizes of West Point and the Air Force Academy in Colorado to equal those of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
The result was four years of dirt, mud and construction noise.
"They dug the holes faster than they filled them," Bryant quipped.
Bryant today is the secretary of the Arizona Society, which includes Tucson and Sierra Vista. There is another society for the Phoenix metro area.
Serving as secretary for more than three years, Bryant is the first to admit that his job consists of pushing paper, though it is a job he feels very comfortable with. One of his duties is to help pull together a quarterly newsletter which spotlights the activities of the local society as well as the continuing operations and changes taking place at the academy.
Nationwide, there are about 120 societies, as well as some scattered throughout the world including England, Russia, Italy, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand and even China (according to the 1990 United States Military Academy register of Graduates and Former Cadets).
The states with higher populations or larger military retirees have a far greater number of societies than states like Idaho (which according to my book had none).
With Arizona's increasing population, and the larger graduating classes from West Point, there will probably be more societies created in the next few decades. The society is not just a place for former graduates to sit back and discuss the old times, though there is probably some of that when they meet for their monthly luncheons.
The West Point Society of Arizona helps keep its members abreast of what is going on at the academy and helps those cadets who may be here on a visit to Southern Arizona. The society was available to assist the cadets when they were here competing against the University of Arizona in Water Polo, as well as when their sky diving team was here, or when their track team shows up later this year.
"We assist, support and host cadets when they are visiting our area," Bryant says.
And another major aspect to their duties is to help steer prospective cadets through the maze of paperwork and interviews that are required to obtain an appointment to West Point, or the other military academies.
According to Bryant, Bill Benedict, class of 1971, is the official West Point Admissions Officer for Southern Arizona. Benedict helps coordinate with the congressional offices and staff in placing young people into West Point.
Rep. James Kolbe, R-Ariz. is "very assertive and extremely good" in placing prospective students at West Point. It is the job of congressmen and congresswomen to appoint people from their districts to attend the military academies. And it is not unusual for at least five from each district to be appointed to one of the academies.
Kolbe, on the other hand, succeeds in appointing seven to eight each year, which is "very good" Bryant says. He adds that Kolbe's congressional staff does incredibly well when working with Benedict and other members of the society.
As for West Point itself, Bryant says that most of the graduates seem pleased with how the Academy had grown and changed in the last half of the 20th century. He says the changing curriculum at West Point has benefited the military as a whole in a changing world.
By increasing the core studies to include more of the social sciences, officers who take on the duties of overseeing a village (such as in Bosnia or Kosovo) have a more rounded education to fall back on when working with such diversity. And West Point now offers majors in such subjects as psychology, history, languages as well as in engineering and science.
Bryant says it appears to him that the academy today is far more interested in leadership preparedness and instructing the "plebes" about the real world.
"When I was a plebe I remember attending an Army/Navy game and going home for Christmas," Bryant says of his only time off while at West Point.
Today, the cadets are allowed off campus more often and are encouraged to take part in career opportunities, such as interning at the capital or elsewhere in the world.
"There was one female cadet who interned at the American Embassy in Nairobi" when the attacks took place in the summer of 1998, Bryant says. "She was not there at the time of the blast but rushed back to help administer to the wounded and dying. For this action she was awarded the Soldier's Medal at West Point."
Not only has the academy changed in the 32 years since Bryant graduated, but so has the country. For the first 170 years of the Academy's existence, 29,000 cadets had graduated. In the 31 years since 1970, another 29,000 have graduated, making the Long Gray Line more than 58,000 strong.
For information about the society, call William Benedict, 297-2207.
WEST POINT CELEBRATES 200 YEARS
The United States Military Academy at West Point began its Bicentennial celebration long before 2002 rolled around.
The official Bicen-tennial date is March 16, but the initial celebration began with the Acceptance Day parade for the class of 2005 on August 18, 2001. It was also in August of last year that the official Bicentennial flag was added to the US Corp of Cadets Color Guard, which is presented during USMA events as well as at events outside the academy. The Bicen-tennial Seal was first unveiled during the Acceptance Day parade for the class of 2002 in August of 1998. And the class rings for the class of 2002 were presented to its member in August of last year.
The official "Long Gray Line Bicentennial Quilt" was created by West Point quilters and "nearly 40 outside quilters" and presented to the academy in August 2001. It is now on permanent display in Eisenhower Hall at the academy. In October of last year the academy hosted a dinner in honor of Hispanic Graduates and the many contributions they have made to the academy and the nation as well.
Also running from October until April of this year is "West Point in film." Many of Hollywood's classics about the life and times of West Point and its cadets will be shown at the Eisenhower Hall Theater.
In addition to on-campus events, 150 cadet volunteers, as well as the Color Guard and Pipes and Drums, marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 2002. It was during January that the West Point Cadet Glee Club publicly performed the vocals on an original score that will run on the closing credits of Mel Gibson's "We Were Soldiers Once" which opens in March.
It was also during January and February of this year that the USMA Band performed a series of original music composed for the Bicentennial.
On March 16, traditionally known as "Founders Day," there will be an unveiling of a West Point Stamp and a West Point Bicentennial Coin.
During April the USMA band will continue its Bicentennial Concert series. Also during that month the academy will host International Week, celebrating the long history of West Point and what the future may hold for it in regard to the international scene. Dignitaries and general officers from around the world will be attending this week long series, as well as returning international alumni.
Throughout the months the academy has been hosting the West Point Bicentennial Engineering Design Contest. The final judgments will take place from April 26-28.
In the first week of May the Centennial Class of 1902 will be honored. On May 8, the USMA Bicentennial will be honored on the Eclipse near the White House in Washington, DC. Referred to as a Military Tattoo, this ceremony will be carried out by the Old Guard and the US Army Band, playing traditional military music.
On June 1 the Bicentennial Class of 2002 will graduate. The Bicentennial year for West Point will culminate with an exhibit held at the Smithsonian Institute. The exhibit will focus on West Point graduates and the contributions they have made to the United States through their knowledge of engineering, exploration and, during times of war. The exhibit will be open through October.
The academy will also have 200 trees planted throughout the West Point campus this spring in honor of the Bicentennial.
The History Channel will be presenting two hour long segments about the Academy while National Geographic will broadcast a six hour series about West Point in the fall of 2002 on NBC. PBS will also air a four-hour documentary hosted by Bill Moyers entitled "America's River: Stories form the Hudson." There will be segments about the history and the environment of the river. West Point will figure into the history with a segment dealing with the Revolutionary War.