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The Character of West Point and The Heroes Among Us
by U.S. Army Col. Everett Spain
Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership
U.S. Military Academy at West Point
August 16, 2019

The U.S. Military Academy’s Cadet Creed inspires us to “have the courage to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.”

For those of us entrusted to lead in the crucible of combat, the courage to put one’s life at risk to protect others may be our profession’s most essential virtue. Indeed, the courage to protect others reflects a deep internalization of each of West Point’s five facets of character: moral, social, civic, performance and leadership.

So, how does West Point develop this courage in our cadets?

Kegan’s theory of adult development, one of the foundations of West Point’s Leadership Development System, tells us that if we hope to transform cadets from being self-focused to others-focused, we must set and enforce high standards, make cadets to serve on interdependent teams and provide cadets with selfless role models, namely staff and faculty.

It follows that if West Point wants to develop selfless officers who have physical courage, many of these role models should be physically courageous. Yet, I was only aware of a handful of West Point teammates who had been recognized for physical courage. But as I looked closer, I discovered they were all around us.

Indeed, more than 40 members of West Point’s staff and faculty have received formal awards for valor or heroism. These include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star (with valor device), Air Medal (with valor device), Army Commendation Medal (with valor device), Secretary of the Army Award for Valor, General Carlton Award for Valor and others. Though the recipients have diverse ranks, ages, specialties, ethnicities, genders and branches of service, they are alike in one way—when lives were on the line, they put others before themselves.

May 2, 2019 - More than 40 members of West Point’s staff and faculty have received formal awards for valor or heroism. These include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star (with valor device) and others. (U.S. Army photo by Matthew Moeller, West Point PAO)
May 2, 2019 - More than 40 members of West Point’s staff and faculty have received formal awards for valor or heroism. These include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star (with valor device) and others. (U.S. Army photo by Matthew Moeller, West Point PAO)

There are no “normal” days at West Point. But if there were, I can imagine myself just walking around campus, unknowingly passing many of these heroes. On Diagonal Walk, I walk past the Company H-4 Tactical Non-commissioned Officer Sgt.1st Class Mike Mullins out ruck-marching with cadets.

In Afghanistan in 2008, Mullin’s platoon was ambushed with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. When six of his fellow Soldiers were wounded, then-Staff Sgt. Mullins ran more than 150 meters through the kill zone to attract enemy fire away from his injured teammates. He then engaged the enemy forces who were attempting to overrun his platoon’s position, halting their advance and then causing the enemy to withdraw from the ambush. br>
In Central Area, I pass the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering’s Maj. Jill Rahon speaking with a group of cadets. In Afghanistan in 2010, when a fully-fueled and armed U.S. helicopter crashed in hostile territory and burst into flames, then-Capt. Rahon jumped a barrier and ran through an unsecured area to the downed aircraft, pulling both of its pilots to safety.

In Taylor Hall, I exchange smiles with USMA Chief of Staff Col. Mark Bieger as he walks into a meeting about Cadet Summer Training. In Mosul, Iraq in 2004, then-Maj. Bieger ran through a hail of gunfire to rescue a wounded Iraqi girl.

In Bradley Barracks, I see Company F-2 Tactical Officer Capt. Nicole Kruse conducting quarterly performance counseling with one of her cadets. In Afghanistan in 2012, as an air mission commander, then-Lt. Kruse received word that a coalition patrol leader was in contact with the enemy, wounded and trapped on a hot landing zone. Undaunted in the face of enemy fire, Kruse and her crew flew their Blackhawk helicopter in and pulled the patrol leader out to safety.

Walking near Mahan Hall, I see the Department of Systems Engineering’s Maj. D.J. Edwards working with cadet leaders to plan an upcoming event. In Killeen, Texas in 2010, then-Capt. Edwards witnessed a crash where two vehicles entangled and caught fire. Edwards leapt into action and pulled a trapped civilian and an Army chaplain out of the burning vehicles.

Near Lincoln Hall, I pass the Department of Social Sciences’ Maj. Dan Hurd as he hustles to catch up with a cadet team. In Iraq’s Euphrates River Valley in 2007, then-Capt. Hurd inspired and led a joint U.S.-Iraqi Army team in a dismounted sprint across three kilometers of rugged terrain, at night, with full combat load, to successfully capture four fleeing al-Qaida high value insurgents. A few days later, upon hearing an explosion that wounded a fellow U.S. Soldier, he disregarded his own safety and sprinted to him across an IED-laden palm grove, provided emergency first aid and helped carry him to the closest landing zone for evacuation to a combat surgical hospital.

As I walk past Thayer Statue, I see Col. Mark Ray walking with a group of cadets up from the Office of the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. In Ramadi in 2003, then-Capt. Ray was the commander of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha. Under the cover of darkness, Ray led a combined-arms force on a house thought to be occupied by armed insurgents. As the raid began, the insurgents engaged the Americans with automatic weapons and caused several friendly casualties, including Ray being shot in the leg. Even though he was wounded, Ray knew the armed enemy was anchored on the second floor. He personally led the charge upstairs that reduced the threat.

Proceeding back toward the cadet area, I see 2nd Aviation Detachment’s Chief Warrant Officer 4 Byron Meads piloting a Lakota helicopter ferrying the Cadet Parachute Team for another practice jump. Near Mosul, Iraq in 2007, then-Chief Warrant Officer 2 Meads received a distress call that Combat Outpost Eagle was breached with a vehicle bomb and was in danger of being overrun. As the co-pilot and observer, Meads flew his OH-58D(R) to COP Eagle. While engaging the enemy during multiple attack passes, their aircraft received multiple hits and suffered a severed fuel line, forcing them to land. A fellow OH-58D(R) aircraft landed nearby, and Meads and his co-pilot strapped themselves to its skids and flew back that way to Diamondback (which was the first time that type of evacuation had every happened in combat). Upon landing, Meads and his co-pilot immediately mounted another aircraft and flew back to COP Eagle, continuing to defend the U.S. Soldiers on the ground.

As I pass Patton’s statue I might hear USMA Historian Sherman Fleek addressing a group of distinguished visitors. In California in 2015, when Fleek was a customer inside a civilian restaurant, a perpetrator entered the establishment while brandishing a handgun, demanding money from the cashier. Sensing danger to all, Fleek intervened physically, sending the assailant running out into the night.

As I read one of my cadet’s Military Leadership course papers, I realize her chosen mentor is the Department of Mathematical Sciences’ Maj. Tyson Walsh. In Afghanistan in 2013, then-Capt. Walsh was exercising alone on the inside perimeter road of his coalition base just before sunrise, when he found an insurgent trying to sneak through a gate.

Unarmed and alone, Walsh engaged and neutralized the insurgent in hand-to-hand combat. His actions uncovered the plan for, and prevented, a major complex attack on the base.

Heading out to check in with my intercollegiate sports team’s coaches and players, I find that the Department of History’s Capt. Makonen Campbell already beat me there by 10 minutes.

Near Khost, Afghanistan, in 2005, in a hot-landing zone, then-Staff Sgt. Campbell descended from a Blackhawk on a cable to stabilize and evacuate two seriously wounded special operations Soldiers. While under fire, he strapped both operators into rescue stretchers and safely had them hoisted into the helicopter.

When I approach my classroom in Thayer Hall, I see the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership’s Maj. Jacob Absalon. In Zormat, Afghanistan in 2009, then-Lt. Absalon was leading a dismounted patrol that came under a complex attack. He led a joint maneuver element to fight off the vicious attack in order to save the life of a wounded Soldier.

Later that evening, as my family hosts our sponsored cadets for dinner, one of them tells me a story about his tactical officer in Company G-4, the Brigade Tactical Department’s Capt. Jason Pomeroy. In Afghanistan’s Ganjgal Valley in 2011, then-Lt. Pomeroy displayed intrepid leadership under heavy fire when he discovered Soldiers from a sister platoon were trapped by enemy forces. He organized and led a small impromptu rescue team that enabled the trapped Soldiers to scramble up a ridgeline to safety.

In addition to staff and faculty stories of physical courage, many cadets arrive with the seeds of courage already sown. When I was a plebe in 1988, an upperclassman on leave at the Gulf of Mexico jumped selflessly into a dangerous riptide to rescue a drowning swimmer.

When I was a cadet junior in 1991, a classmate ran through a burning multi-story housing development, literally carrying several infirm elderly residents across his shoulders down smoky stairwells to safety.

In 2016, Cadet Thomas Surdyke bravely gave his life when rescuing a weaker swimmer swept out by a riptide on Southampton Beach. And in 2019, a current cadet ran to assist a stranger who fell down a steep snow bank into an icy river. There are many more stories like these.

It is comforting to know that our cadets are surrounded by West Point’s ordinary heroes, including many cadets who already display these virtues. As such, we can be confident that our nation’s future leaders will continue our Army’s essential tradition of heroism and valor.

As West Point’s common heroes, often unsung and sometimes unnoticed, engage with all of us, we cannot deny that physical courage walks the halls.

Their presence as role models humbly reminds our cadets, and all of us, to “live above the common level of life” by being prepared to put the welfare of others before our own, especially when it matters most.

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