On Parade With the Class of 9/11

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The Cadets: West Point's drill team during a formal parade

On the fourth of nearly a dozen visits to West Point reporting this week's TIME cover story I find myself on The Plain, the parade ground that, the joke says, is "the most heavily mock-defended acre in the world." The occasion of the day is the pending retirement of several of West Point's highest officers, the heads of History and Social Sciences, the dean of Academics, and cadets are performing one of the tasks they hate most: parading across the field, a thousand of them in their stiffest formal grays, plumes whipping in the heavy wind.

My mission had been to find three cadets through whom we could tell the inside story of the preparation of Class of 2005, the last West Point class to enter before 9/11, for a new kind of war. I was initially dubious. I knew little about West Point beyond the stereotype of an officer factory, minting the next generation of Army elites. I wondered whether West Point or the cadets themselves would drop their guard enough to let us see the more human mechanics behind their four-year march to war.

Almost from the first day, however, the gray facade melted away. As I followed them to their classes, team practices, year-end banquets, and sessions at the rifle range, I began to see that our three cadets—indeed, nearly every cadet I spoke with—were incredibly self-aware and candid, each with a vastly different story about their path to West Point, and different reasons for why they decided to stay the course, even as it led to combat.

Greg Zielinski rebelled against the preppies of Fairfield, Conn., and came to West Point to be the toughest infantryman he could be. Tom Pae came from Newark, Calif., just east of San Francisco, as the son of Korean artists, to better himself and give back to his family's adopted country as a soldier and a leader. Tuscon native Kristen Beyer knew nothing about the army and entered West Point mainly to swim for its Division I team, but she stayed to pursue a new dream of flying Blackhawk helicopters.

Tom, Kristen and Greg shared their lives at West Point and their thoughts about what lies ahead with a remarkable openness and generosity. The latter is especially remarkable since the West Point workweek is a grueling mixture of academic instruction, military training, and physical fitness. Yet by this point, in their fourth year, the three have earned free hours in the day and other privileges — Kristen has a car she takes into town with her friends, Greg visits old high school buddies in Boston on the weekends, Tom finds his way to New York City with classmates when he gets the chance. When they're relaxing during downtime, only Greg retains the vigilant intensity of a soldier. Tom and Kristen switch more readily into civilian languor mode, an artifact perhaps from their previous lives in sunny western states. The intensity level at West Point remains high, though, in part because of a new crop of instructors, tested by recent combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have come back to teach cadets about the moral ambiguities and psychological rigors of counterinsurgency and nation building. Captain Chris McKinney led a company of a hundred men through the bloody strike on Karbala before teaching infantry tactics, and the importance of constant, fierce adherence to Army standards, to West Point cadets. Major Jason Amerine, a Special Forces officer who fought alongside now-President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, uses his international relations class to shake his cadets out of any comfortable misconceptions about the U.S. Army and how it's viewed abroad. Conventional wisdom says that American teenagers are unshakably obsessed with instant celebrity, pimped rides and video games. But West Point kids—valedictorians, football captains, National Merit Scholars—defy those stereotypes. They choose instead four years of daily room inspections, 6am breakfast formations, with a coda of near-certain deployment into a combat zone. All they get in exchange are assurances that their country needs them, that they are filling a timeless and revered role. June Harting, whose son Jay, West Point Class of '98, was killed with his classmate and friend Steven Frank at a checkpoint in Iraq last month, summed the West Point mentality the best: "What people don't understand," she told me by phone as she drove to New York to bury her son in West Point's cemetery, "is that these kids are like from a hundred years ago. Their values are from a different era."

But are those sturdy values be enough to support an army hobbled by long deployments, stagnant recruiting, prisoner scandals, and a wary public? What about the shifting military threats of asymmetric warfare? The class of 9/11 is about to find out.