West Point cadets left with 'a real clarity about our mission' in Afghanistan

After the 3,000 West Point cadets heard President Obama's plan for Afghanistan, they faced questions on whether they would have to fight and why they would want to.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- All 3,000 cadets remained standing in the auditorium, shoulders straight, chins high, hands clasped behind their backs. They had just listened to President Obama declare his plans for the Afghanistan war, an announcement that affected nobody more than them, and yet their bodies remained still and their faces remained stoic.

Only after the speech ended and the country turned away did the West Point cadets offer interpretations of their own: Here was a plan laid out by their commander in chief, and it was their job to follow it. But their emotions ranged from elation to concern, and Obama's decision to deploy an additional 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has consumed their thoughts and dominated their conversations in the days since the speech.

Eric Bernau, in his final year at West Point, had reached out from the third row to shake Obama's hand, and he returned to his room on the first floor of the Ike Barracks eager to post photographs of the event on Facebook. He wanted to call family and friends and tell them about "the whole honor of being in that room with the president at such a key moment in history," he said. Only when he checked the messages on his cellphone did he realize his friends wanted to talk to him about something else entirely.

There were about 20 text messages waiting, some entirely in capital letters and others peppered with anxious exclamation marks.

"What does this mean for you?" one friend said.

"Will you have to go?" another wondered. "Are you nervous?"

"I came here to West Point for four years because I have one singular goal of serving this country while we're at war," Bernau explained, again and again. "If you're involved in sports, you don't want to spend all your time practicing and then never play in the game. It's the same thing for us. I always expected to go to war. I want to go. I'm honored to go."

Bernau had applied to West Point -- and nowhere else -- five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks precisely because he hoped to be counted on when it mattered most. He was the first in his family to join the military, leaving behind a worried mother with roots as a religious pacifist and a miffed group of friends who later bragged about their light schedules at the University of Wisconsin. But Bernau was captivated by the purposefulness of the Army and the cohesiveness of the West Point cadets. Once a high school class clown, he absorbed the seriousness of the country's oldest military academy: the gray uniforms, gray skies and gray stone buildings; the morning roll call at 6:50 and the lunchtime count at noon, all with a military band providing a drum roll in the background.

When it came time earlier this year for Bernau to select a military branch, he asked to be assigned to infantry, with a creed demanding courage at the "heart of the fight." He liked physical sports -- camping, hiking and mixed martial arts -- that he thought would translate well into fighting an enemy on the ground. He also believed that the most noble leaders earned respect by operating "at the tip of the spear," he said.

Long before Obama spent months deliberating the future of the Afghanistan war and brought his decisions to West Point, Bernau had contemplated -- and made peace with -- the potential consequences of the president's path. He was surrounded by the effects of war every day. It was the combat boots and military fatigues worn for Spirit Day each Thursday. It was the boxing classes and self-defense training required of each cadet. It was the alumni who returned to visit between tours in Iraq, some telling gruesome stories and others not saying much at all. It was the public announcements that preceded lunch in the mess hall when another West Point alum was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, bringing the total to 73. It was, as much as anything, the unblemished white headstones in Section 34 of the West Point graveyard, where so many of those 73 had been buried that there were plans to expand the cemetery and overtake an adjacent parking lot and coffee shop.

"You can't spend a day at West Point without being reminded what we're here for," Bernau said. "Everything builds toward that service."

Said Col. Mike Meese, chairman of West Point's social studies department: "There has been an incredible intensity here ever since 9/11. The cadets have a strong belief that this is the defining struggle of their lifetime. Every one of them elected to come here because they want to be a part of it."

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