Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s inspirational personal story about being offered a scholarship to the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., after meeting a powerful U.S. general is now under scrutiny, following a Politico report on Friday. The tale has been told often, and was laid out in “Gifted Hands,” the 1990 autobiography that made Carson famous and inspired a TV special by the same name in which Cuba Gooding Jr. played the doctor.
Carson’s book said that he was introduced in 1969 to Gen. William Westmoreland, who was then the chief of staff of the Army and a recent commander of U.S. military operations in Vietnam. The meeting, the book said, was followed by Carson being offered a full scholarship to West Point.
The story held up until now. But in retrospect, it is clear that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The process to getting into West Point requires applicants to obtain a nomination, most commonly from their congressman, senator or vice president of the United States. The secretary of the Army — an appointed civilian leader — also can nominate a student for consideration, but the service’s four-star chief of staff — Westmoreland from July 1968 through June 1972 — is not eligible to do so.
All of those kinds of nominations are considered congressional in nature. The other way to get consideration for admission is through what is known as a service-connected nomination, which has specific requirements. They include being the son or daughter of an individual who served at least eight years, died or became disabled while serving, or earned the Medal of Honor. Enlisted soldiers who obtained the endorsement of their commander to apply can also be considered.
Members of junior and senior ROTC programs also can apply, but must seek their nomination through their professor of military science. Carson said in his book that he was introduced to Westmoreland by his JROTC director following a Memorial Day parade, but makes no allusion to seeking a nomination of any kind. Politico also reported that Westmoreland wasn’t in Detroit, Carson’s hometown, in 1969 on Memorial Day, citing Army documents.
In addition to the criteria, Carson’s terminology about West Point is questionable. Carson said that he was offered a scholarship to attend, but the school doesn’t offer anything that it calls a scholarship. Rather, students are offered admission without tuition in exchange for serving their country when they graduate.
Politico reported that West Point has no record of Carson applying to the school, let alone being offered admission. Attempts by The Washington Post to reach West Point officials were unsuccessful.
This article has been updated to correct the year “Gifted Hands” was first published.