West Point: Whitey's Burden

Whitey Herzog weighs his decisions in part two of 'War and Peace,' covering a year in the life of the military academy

Cadets at West Point Credit: Yana Paskova/for The Washington Post via Getty Images

WHEN HE SAT DOWN AT HIS computer last August, Whitey Herzog picked aviation instead of infantry. He knew what he was doing — deciding against the military for a career. "I was like, 'This is the rest of my life,' " Whitey remembers. There were ten minutes left. "And I just couldn't press infantry. The answer was always there, it was just a matter of facing it." He laughs. "When it's ten minutes before the deadline, you face it." Whitey will spend the next six years as a helicopter pilot; he'll train with Brian Supko at Fort Rutger, Alabama. When those years are up, the plan is goodbye to the Army.

When he speaks about his decision, Whitey sometimes dips into the unease he must have felt in August, when he prayed for God to give him some signal in the porta-potty. "You know," he says, "there's only a few things that are important to me in life, and one of them's service to the military. I'm dead serious about that 100 percent of the time." Whitey had been so sure about infantry, he'd been measured for the uniform. "I was going to go infantry and go with the rangers. Always wanted to do that, had my heart set on it. I never failed any major goal in my life. And I had to accept that: Can I go with aviation and still serve as much as I want to?"

A few days before post selection, the infantry uniform arrived anyway. Whitey opened the box, looked at the gear for a long time. Blue is the infantry color - blue-striped cap, blue suspenders. After a week, it began to seem like unclaimed luggage at the airport, a suit made for somebody who was never showing up. He sent the uniform back. "I'm never going to know if I made the right decision," he says. "Yeah, the contract says, 'Hey, I'm good to go,' but that's no way to live life. You know - selfless service. That's why I hurt." He smiles. "No regrets."

Whitey grew up hoping to be an officer; he wanted to do something for the country. "Nowadays most people don't think of the military for that," he says. "But that's what I thought I'd be good at. I love the freedoms of our country. I love the fact that my friends can go do whatever they want, even little shit - I wanted to preserve that." Whitey has always loved music (at West Point, first thing he'll do back from class is turn on the CD, raise his hands and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, James Marshall Hendrix"). He even chooses women on a musical scale - "The Dead's too far one way, Tupac's too far the other; the kind of girl you'd find at an Allman Brothers concert, with a nice pair of jeans on." His high school friends - beer drinkers, Deadheads - are mostly kids who didn't even go to college. One works in a restaurant, another's a bike messenger. Whitey was afraid he'd lose them over West Point. "That was my big worry - you know, the Army isn't for them." After Beast training, families are allowed a weekend visit; Whitey walked out of barracks hungry for a friendly face. Two of his buddies stepped from behind a tree - long hair, beards, tie-dye. The other families were craning necks, people with cameras and kids. What were guys like this doing at West Point? "But I didn't give a crap about that," Whitey says. "They supported me, they were proud of me. They thought it was cool."

A cadet uniform is like an old-fashioned steamer trunk: Look at the stamps, they tell you where it's been. Over his left pocket, Whitey wears the wreath that means he's kept a 3.0 academically, physically and militarily. (This puts Whitey in the top fifteen percent of his class.) He wears Airborne wings, the National Defense Service ribbon, a military-skills badge and the Army Achievement Medal, for special-operations training missions with the Third Ranger Battalion. Cow summer, West Point sent Whitey to Mexico with five other cadets for some cultural ambassadorship; they toured Mexican army units, colonels got them drunk, generals fed them on yachts. "When we visited their military academy, the entire corps put on a show for us. And I ain't shit, man - I'm some kid from Buffalo who loved to have his beers every day after high school with his buddies. And here we were, their whole school did a parade for us. The cadet that escorted me had tears in his eyes. He's like, 'This is my honor.' I said, 'I admire the discipline, it's my honor, too.' He's like, 'No, it's my honor,' and he took off his academy symbol and his airborne wings, gave 'em to me. I gave him mine." Whitey knows everything about the Army - units, divisions, weapons - the way some kids know sports teams. Mention a battle, he knows how it was won; mention a movie, he'll tell you how the Army makes sure Hollywood always gets one uniform detail wrong, so no foreign power with a costume designer can wreak havoc. He knows it because it's what he's always wanted.

A week after post selection, the Goodfellas - minus Supko, who has an away game with the baseball team - hit a local bar to celebrate. They have about 110 days to graduation. The Goodfella Whitey is closest to is probably not Suppy, who'll live with him at aviation next year, or John Mini, who's smart in a lot of the same ways Whitey is smart. It's Iggy. For both men, the military is the thing they care about, a rescue from disorder.

Iggy's father grew up poor in the Philippines, lost both parents, swept buses for a quarter, had one pencil in school; he wrote very lightly to make the lead last. His dad joined the Philippine marines and learned the fellowship stuff; his father's marine-corps comrades are the men Iggy calls "uncle," a Filipino sign of respect. "I saw the brotherhood that my father had," Iggy says. His voice is raspy, sharp. "The civilian world is so different, you know? Maybe it's ignorance that I say that, 'cause what can I say about the civilian world? But the military, the thing I saw most was, you couldn't find as good friends, or you wouldn't become good friends so fast. You go through all the same shit, and it's not just you." Iggy's mother comes from a tiny Filipino town, did poorly in school; it was years before anyone realized she needed glasses. In 1983, Iggy's dad brought the family to California - no future for children in the Philippines. Iggy had to repeat the first grade because he didn't speak English. Elementary school, his mother would help him study. "That made me real proud," he says. "Then after a while, I started getting into accelerated courses and she couldn't help me anymore. But even when she didn't understand, she'd sit with me, try to do it."

The Ignacio family lived in Long Beach, California: "Not a good area. It wasn't, like, ghetto style, Boys N the Hood. But, like, it could get bad." Some nights, the Ignacios sitting in their house, tires would screech, gunshot, tires screeching away. Iggy was in a special program at Long Beach Polytechnic High, but those weren't the kids he hung with. Iggy would be out with the crew, dancing at house parties. "That's why I loved my high school. You had guys with the brains in a school that was ghetto style - we were all mixed. What I'm saying is, you can put me with the gangsters and I'll get along. And you can put me with the fuckin' brainiacs, I'll get along, too." The Ignacio family was tight with a Filipino family whose children ran the gangs. "And they would always look at me and my brothers like, 'Why can't you jump in with us?' I'll tell you straight, it was my parents that saved us."

There was also Junior ROTC. Half the kids in Iggy's program were gang. Another mix: disciplined kids, discipline-problem kids. "We lost some, converted some." Senior year, Iggy commanded the city's entire corps. When he got West Point, it was what his father had hoped for when they left the Philippines. "In this country, you can start with nothing and come out fine," Iggy says. "That's why it's so important that I'm here. It's not just for me - well, I am here for me, but there's other things involved. I want to take care of my family." Iggy branched infantry because he loves the Army; he selected Fort Drum - usually the first unit to see conflict - because he wanted to deploy fast, get out and soldier. "See, that's what made the crew tight," Iggy says. "We all believe in the same ideas."

At the bar, the Goodfellas do some beer talk about service. John Mini gets drunk, tells his friends the tanks will always be there for them. Iggy says his greatest fear is that he might somehow let them down - "that it'll be just words," he says. Whitey says, "If there's a moment that I don't want to fail, it's that moment. Whether it's for lives, oil, economy - that's our job. All's I ask is that one chance."

The breakdown among West Point firsties is between the hard-core and the relaxed. It's as though there are two different trains rolling through West Point; for a while they're the same train, and the cadets ride along comfortably, eyeing each other, figuring out who's who. Then, with firstie year, they hit a juncture and split off. There's a tension. "My personal opinion," cow Eric Parthemore says, "is that if you come here, you should be committed to the military primarily. It should be your first commitment rather than, 'OK, I come here, I can get a good job after I get out.' I think that's workin' the system, and I disagree with it. But the truth is, it happens."

The Goodfellas are confused about what brings some cadets to West Point. "I think we all came in with the impression that everyone is here because they want to be here and they want to lead soldiers," Iggy says. "And then you realize, and you're like, damn."

"Touchy issue," Whitey agrees. "A lot of guys here, they're great guys, but they don't seem to ever talk about combat and all that; they're so relaxed, I can't figure out why they're here. Just to graduate, get the West Point ring and get out."

Sometimes Iggy hears kids talking about leaving early, shipping to graduate school. Taking computer science so they can head-start their job search. "I don't agree with that," Iggy says. "You want to be a lawyer? Go to Harvard. You want to be a math guy? Go to MIT. You want to be a combat officer, you come here. We're here to lead. And that's changing. It's changing because society's changing. And you hang around guys who talk negative enough, you'll catch up on it. It's like we're outnumbered, you know what I mean?"