Lt. Gen. Berry spent more than three years in combat and, in time of war, led Army units as small as a platoon and as large as a division. He was wounded twice and was four times awarded the Silver Star.
His rise was swift and assured. In 1970, Life magazine profiled him under the headline “The Case Study of an Army Star,” describing his near-certain future as Army chief of staff and noting his “air of exuberant self-confidence,” born of his status as “warrior hero.”
His most difficult assignment, as he described it, began when he was nominated in 1974 to serve as the 50th superintendent of his alma mater. He was one of the youngest major generals in the Army when, at 48, he was asked to take over the military academy.
Steeped in tradition and admired for its standards, West Point had, through the course of U.S. history, become known for the rigors and demands by which it shaped the future leaders of the Army and the nation.
Yet it seemed that not even so revered an institution could insulate itself from the swift and strong currents of change that ran through the United States and its Army in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the counterculture undercurrents of the 1960s.
“There has been great discussion about integrity in the Army itself, most of it arising out of My Lai,” he told Time in 1976, referring to the massacre of civilians in Vietnam. “Frankly, this is a terribly difficult time for the academy.”
If West Point was a pillar of the nation, one of the pillars of the academy was its honor code. Not only were cadets not to lie, cheat or steal, they were forbidden from tolerating those who did. But a study group Lt. Gen. Berry had appointed called the code’s strictures unrealistic, describing it as a statement of “unattainable human behavior.”
That was not Lt. Gen. Berry’s view. If the cadet code could not be upheld, then, he asked himself, what was the academy for?
Amid the debate, the biggest cheating scandal in the academy’s history erupted in March 1976, stemming from a take-home electrical-engineering exam.
“I’ve never been in more of a combat situation than I am now,” the superintendent told Time. “There are things that make me heartsick in the whole situation — so many young men may have violated the honor code. But, by God, I’ve been heartsick in battle and done what I have to do.”
Lt. Gen. Berry said he would do what was demanded of him, even if it meant removing the Class of 1977. Eventually, more than 150 cadets resigned or were expelled in the scandal, although 98 were subsequently reinstated.
Then, in the same year as the cheating scandal, the first class of women arrived. Lt. Gen. Berry had not found the idea of admitting women to be congenial. In fact, the plan had led him to contemplate resigning.