WEST POINT DAYS ARE SO efficient, they even include the night. Each class gets its banquet (1,000 cadets blinking as a Medal of Honor recipient explains, “You have to be in awe of the fact that the parents of this land have taken their most prized possession, their sons and daughters, and turned them over to you”). And each company holds what’s called a Dining-in: 125 cadets occupy a private dining hall, propose toasts, eat off academy china. Tonight, George Rash and Company G-4 (“The Fighting Guppies”) are dining in a room that’s bright with flags. Lt. Col. Michael Chura of the Department of Military Instruction delivers the address. “It may sound arrogant and egotistical, but it’s the damn truth: If you are not a superior being relative to your soldiers, then they are not going to die for you. When I say ‘superior being,’ I mean you’ve got to have it on the wall. Because, I’m telling you, you haven’t experienced anything yet. You have not experienced combat, you have not experienced people who are cold, tired, hungry – people who are scared out of their wits. And when that happens, they will look to you: ‘Lieutenant, do something.’ So do not forget, you must be that superior being.”
Plebe George Rash isn’t feeling very much like a superior being right now; he doesn’t even know whether he’ll be here next month. A couple of weeks ago, in late January, he flunked his second Army Physical Fitness Test. One more failure and he’s separated – out of West Point. Most of G-4 treats him like he’s gone already, a temporary cadet, a ghost at the academy. Unit cohesion is the term for the brotherhood that West Point life produces – each time George reaches for it, somebody aims a kick.
Rash and his roommate, Kevin Hadley (the two plebes basically hate each other), are sitting with two second-year cadets, Adrian Cannady and Arthur Johnson. “Please pass the butter and salt,” George says. “Yo, man,” Hadley says, “you’re gonna rot your arteries.” The table snickers: Rot your arteries! “Probably,” George says morosely.
As with every other aspect of life at West Point, Dining-ins are full of tradition. Cadets are “called out,” forced to admit private indiscretions. Then they either drink a special punch (it includes water from the G-4 guppy fish-bowl) or accept punishment. When cadets choose the punch, Cannady can’t believe it: “That’s nasty. That’s just ignorance. There’s been things floating dead in that tank all year.” Two roommates opt for punishment; their sentence is to croon “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” to each other. (“That’s punishment for us,” one cadet calls.) After a bar, the whole company joins in, shoes stamping for the beat, and the swirl of unit cohesion is so strong, you can feel yourself linking with everyone in the room, the differences being sanded away; you’re getting bonded.
“I’m just glad I chose West Point over the Naval Academy,” George says.
“Why?” his table mates snort. “Why’s that, Rash?”
ONCE GEORGE RASH FLUNKED HIS second APFT, his problems became the company’s problem. Capt. Jim DeMoss (G-4’s Tac, or supervising adult officer) has taken a hands-off approach, to let this be a developmental opportunity. “The cadets are in charge,” he says. George needs to hit 15:54 on the two-mile run; his actual time was 16:48, and the odds against him look pretty long. DeMoss is not so sure the cadets are helping Rash. “I’m skeptical,” the captain says with a shrug. “I would hope they’re really involved. But sometimes I have to brace myself for things not working out as idealistically as I want them to.” Ryan Nelson, a sturdy, sleepy-eyed firstie (senior), is company commander of G-4. Nelson grew up on a dairy farm in Ivanhoe, Minnesota – “The Storybook Town,” population 751; the streets have English-saga names like Norman and Saxon. Nelson was a farm kid. High school came sandwiched between chores: milking cows, feeding cows, weaning calves. “My mom likes to give me crap,” he says. “She says, ‘West Point is a vacation for you. I bet you hate coming home, because you have to work.'” I ask why so many cadets seem to come from towns like Ivanhoe – Nelson’s high school was so tiny, he played both sides at football, offense and defense. “In a small town, one thing you see is people who go off to the Army, and they become kind of your role models,” he says. “It’s the small-town-hero type thing. And then people kind of see the Army as an opportunity to get out of a small town, you know?”
When George Rash failed the APFT, Nelson decided to assign him the best cadet trainers possible. Yuk (sophomore) Steve Lagan is one of the highest-ranked cadets militarily in his company – he could help with George’s military bearing. And cow (junior) Jake Bergman is the Number One cadet in G-4 physically – get him involved and you get his roommate, Trent Powell, two for the price of one. “I gave them Rash as a special project,” Nelson says. “To see what they could do.”
In January, Rash typed Steve Lagan an e-mail: “If I don’t pass in thirty days, I’m out of here, and Captain De-Moss has said that he will recommend separation. Without someone telling me to get ready on a daily basis, I’ll probably forget and put it off till it’s too late. I definitely am willing to put out the effort on this.” Steve Lagan – born and raised Noble, Oklahoma – is one of West Point’s many hard-core Christians. He has Christian cartoon characters on his computer screen saver (from a show called Veggie Tales, where animated carrots and tomatoes offer religious instruction), and he has an In Touch magazine on his desk (the back-cover ad asks, “Have you ever met people who believed those stories from the Bible were really true?”); when I curse, he winces. His non-West Point e-mail address begins “Mygodreigns.” But his determination to help Rash is pure West Point. “If he doesn’t pass, it’ll be a bad representation of me,” Steve says. “I don’t want to have to say, ‘My plebe got kicked out because I couldn’t keep him in shape.'”
Walk into Jake Bergman and Trent Powell’s room, you’ll probably find them sitting around with their shirts off, reading bodybuilding encyclopedias and taking nutritional supplements. (They don’t eat the West Point food – too many calories; they eat fruit, protein bars, drink powdered breakfast mix. They refer to the two Schwarzenegger lifting books as “the two covenants.”) Bergman – a smart, massive kid from Diamond Bar, California – tells me there’s no slang term like musclehead for the serious lifter community at West Point, but that’s what he and Powell are: muscleheads. One thing they dislike about military life is how much it cuts into their lifting time. They keep five-pound jars of whey protein stowed under their desks, bottles of Ripped Fuel, a muscle enhancer called Phosphagen HP and androstene (slugger Mark McGwire’s choice) on their shelves. There’s a video collection of all of Schwarzenegger’s films and a poster of Schwarzenegger from Commando on the back of the door. Generally, door posters are supposed to be military in nature, but Schwarzenegger is holding a grenade and wearing face paint, so he squeaks by. Bergman is the planning guy, Lagan the hands-on guy. It’s Bergman’s job to work up the training schedule for Rash – he receives daily updates – and Lagan’s job to put it in practice.
So every morning, Rash reports to Lagan’s room before dawn to do uniform drills and go over Knowledge, the collection of strategies, weapons and maneuvers every plebe must master. Three times a week, Lagan brings Rash down to the track. Other days, he sits Rash on the bike machine. “We only have a month,” Lagan says, “so we have to crank this into high gear real fast.” By the end of week one, Rash has clipped twenty seconds off his run time. Lagan figures that if he can cut another twenty seconds each week, Rash stands a chance of staying at West Point. And under pressure, Rash is hardening: “I won’t fail,” he says.