We are the priviliged few
Those of us who were able to see a truly special event late Friday afternoon. While there were a couple hundred of us there, I wish it could have been thousands.
You see, seven warriors came up from Walter Reed and shared with us their spirit, their truly indomitable spirit, for a beautiful half hour. They were veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, young non-commissioned officers from the ranks of corporal through staff-sergeant. Six had lost legs and one an arm. One had an above the knee amputation and one had both legs amputated.
They were coming to test themselves against the famed West Point Indoor Obstacle Course (the IOCT). This is a grueling test for young fit soldiers. And here were these young men, bodies that had been broken-smashed-pulverized, going to stare it down and push themselves to and across the threshold of pain and adversity. They had come up to West Point that morning, been given a tour of the phenomenal Arvin Gym facilities and had the IOCT demonstrated for them. They worked on a few of the tasks themselves and prepared for the test at 4 PM. They expected little fanfare and few observers – they were here for themselves – to challenge themselves.
But the word had got out. Wounded Warriors were going to brave the IOCT! And so we came. I had known of the event for several weeks as one of the officers escorting them up from DC was an old cadet of mine. Others found out just that afternoon. And they came and filled the stands on the west side of historic old Hayes Gym in the center of Arvin. It is a dusty, musty old barn – filled with the sweat and grime of 100 years. When they built the state-of the-art new facilities, they kept Hayes intact – like a little old house incorporated into the skyscraper around it. It is a timeless link to the Corps of the past – the Long Gray Line. And the IOCT links today’s cadets to their forebears who went through the same rigorous trial.
I arrived right at 4 and could hear the rumbling buzz in the gym before I stepped in. I smiled as I looked around, taking in the scene. There was an electric, yet festive air; everyone was expectant. I stood halfway down the course and looked down to the south end of the gym where the seven warriors had gathered. They were stretching and talking and looking around at the scene themselves. The stands filled with cadets and faculty, the center of the gym with senior officers – colonels and generals and visiting dignitaries (including a few deep-pockets donors). And lots of photographers and a video team. This was not what the wounded warriors had expected! But they were smiling and determined young men. Just after 4, the first two lined up to begin the test. Two more would go about every ten minutes. A seventh warrior, the one with the above the knee amputation and therefore with a larger, stiffer prosthetic, went alone at the end. The test consists of 11 events performed sequentially: low crawl under barrier, tire footwork, two-handed vault, leap and pull up to an 8 ft horizontal shelf, horizontal bar navigation, dive through a hanging tire, balance beam, 8 ft horizontal wall, 20 ft horizontal ladder, 16 ft vertical rope, and 350m sprint (carrying a 6 lb medicine ball for the first 120m, a baton for the second 120m, and empty-handed for the remaining 110m). Because of the unique level of athletic skill needed to pass the test and the tremendous level of effort needed to excel at it, the IOCT holds a special place in the hearts of all West Point Cadets and graduates. YouTube has many videos about it, both serious and comical. The IOCT is both feared and revered by the members of the Long Gray Line.
As the first pair set off on their test, the place went wild with noise! And it sustained itself for the entire half hour, rising with each successful completion of a task. One of my instructors was walking on the street outside and he said it sounded like 20,000 people cheering at a football game! The wounded men were nothing but phenomenal. The courage they demonstrated, attempting an incredibly difficult test in front of hundreds of strangers, in front of senior leaders and cameras, was awe inspiring. I cannot say enough or write in any way that tells how profoundly I and we were touched by this display of the human spirit. I clapped till my hands hurt, I smiled like a crazy drunken man, I had tears fill my eyes and a few coursed down my cheeks. Others just let the tears roll the whole time! We were slapping each others’ backs and cheering wildly. If a warrior struggled with a task (climbing over a wall, climbing a rope, or staying on the balance beam) we screamed our support – and they never gave up – they accomplished everything! One fell off the beam five times. I thought for a second he might just move on to the next event. But, no. On the sixth attempt he made it across and the roof nearly lifted off old Hayes! After climbing the rope to a track above, the warriors set out on their run with prosthetic legs that perhaps needed an adjustment after the pounding they’d just gone through but the warriors persevered. They were amazing. No other word to describe them.
I made eye contact with cadets, officers and others I knew in the gym – just a silent smile and head nod that signified that we knew we were sharing a very special moment. We’ve all lost friends and comrades, former students and others, along the way in this war. We’ve friends who’ve lost limbs and eyesight, like these men here before us. And the spirit, the will to win – it . . just . . doesn’t . . quit. As I look around me, I am taken back to the last day of January where, in the al Faw Palace on Camp Victory, I had been present when we brought back a similar number of wounded warriors to Iraq so that they could have their own Operation Proper Exit. This time they went home proudly on their feet. I was so moved then, hugging those guys – telling them we would finish the job for them. And with us that day was our boss, General Ray Odierno, head of US military efforts in Iraq. Fast forward to last Friday and, in the midst of the event, in walks that unmistakable tall man with the bald dome – Odierno. There is no fanfare. He just wants to see his boys. His own son is a wounded warrior, an amputee. No one has seen as much service in Iraq as General O; he knows the cost. He just gave up command there last week. He is here now to see these men challenge themselves and, in so doing, challenge all of us watching them – especially the young cadets here. There is no way any of these future officers will quit now – not after having seen what they just did! We are all – inspired. No better word. Inspired.
Afterwards, after the head of the PE department, the Master of the Sword, has spoke, we all approach the warriors, shake hands and hug. I am in civvies, wearing a Kansas Jayhawk shirt and one young corporal says “Hey, sir, love the shirt – I’m from Wichita!” He is missing a leg but has just completed an incredible feat and has a world-beating grin tacked to his face. They are like rock stars! I hug them all and thank them for all they’ve done. I step back and look around the crowded gym floor and I know this for a fact – I have never had a better moment in my over eight years of service at this Academy. This has been the single best thing I have seen or participated in during this whole time, over two different tours. I am so sorry I cannot convey it all the way I wish I could and should. Sometimes, truly, you had to be there.
Yesterday, Saturday, dawned a beautiful sunny blue-skied day here – nary a cloud the entire day. It was just like that September 11th morning nine years ago. The flag on West Point’s Plain was, of course, at half-staff. We had a parade by the Corps and then a football game and an incredible day here all around. Spirit. Joy. Remembrance. Camaraderie. Future. We do not forget. But we forge our future. Right here. Every day. As do you, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on 9-11. We do not forget. But we forge our future. Every day. Like Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena – we do not stand silent on the sidelines. And if we had forgot that – we remember it now; these beautiful young men, these brothers of ours – have shown us what the human spirit is capable of, what it means to have the heart of a lion. As I often do, at times of this type of reflection, I think of one of my true heroes - Abraham Lincoln. And, in his second Inaugural, just weeks before he was killed, he said, in closing, “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle: . ..” The Wounded Warrior program is doing that for today’s veteran. Well, at least it is in place for them and is now, I believe, a very good one. But – it depends, ultimately, on the individual soldier and what they decide they will do and become.
Friday afternoon I was one of a privileged few to see and experience that which we all wish would be the way we handle adversity. But, we really don’t know till we are faced with it. These seven very brave young men came into our lives and showed us what it mean to ‘soldier on’ – to live the Warrior Spirit.