It takes all of about four minutes for 4,300 cadets to file into the West Point mess hall for breakfast. Meals are taken inside a graceful granite building whose arched ceilings, dark wooden walls, and low lighting give it the feel of a Gothic cathedral—one where the parishioners are dressed in gray or camouflage uniforms, and the saints, staring down from massive oil paintings lining the walls, are decorated generals. A rumbling chatter echoes as the cadets are seated, until a clear, forceful voice, coming from a balcony above the main dining-room floor, quiets the cavernous room.
“Please give your attention to the first captain!”
Then another voice, this one belonging to the top-ranked cadet.
“I regret to inform you of the death of First Lieutenant Phillip Neel, class of 2005. First Lieutenant Neel died on 8 April 2007, in Balad, Iraq, when his unit came in contact with enemy forces using grenades. Please join me in observing a moment of silence for this fallen graduate.”
Among the silent is cadet David del Cuadro-Zimmerman, 22, a son of Park Slope, who is in his final year at the United States Military Academy. Later that day, he nods solemnly; he remembers seeing Lieutenant Neel on campus not that long ago. “Those announcements seem to come more frequently now,” he says. Four years ago, as the war in Iraq began, del Cuadro-Zimmerman’s parents, both retired public-school teachers, had offered to pay for whatever college he chose—anywhere that would keep him from going to West Point. At the last minute, though, he picked Army over Boston College. Now he’s ready to start flight school and get to Iraq. Yet he can’t help wondering what his life would have been like had he taken up his parents on their offer.
Nine hundred cadets will graduate from West Point on May 26. Five are from New York City. After taking in a commencement speech from Vice-President Dick Cheney, and after tossing their caps in the air in the football stadium, the Army’s newest officers will scatter for months of branch training. Perhaps before it ends, Congress will cut off money for the war and bring the troops home. Perhaps Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, will prestidigitate a functioning government and police force. But the most likely scenario is that all but a handful of the 900 graduates will be in harm’s way by this time next year.
They’ll face grim odds. West Point graduates are taking a larger share of casualties than at any time in recent American military history. Of the almost 3,800 military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, 49 have been USMA alumni. That’s three times the percentage of graduate deaths in Vietnam, six times higher than what befell former cadets in the Second World War, and thirteen times the proportion of those killed in the First World War. Suicide bombers, IEDs, snipers—it’s little wonder that more officers are doing the “five and fly,” the term for leaving uniform as soon as the required five years of active duty is finished. The Army is now suffering from a shortage of about 3,000 mid-level officers, which has caused President Bush to gradually increase the size of West Point’s entering classes, growing the student body from 4,000 to 4,300 cadets in the past four years.
New York’s newest warriors are part of the first class to matriculate after the war in Iraq began. Some were pulled by patriotism; for others, joining the Army was a truly radical form of rebellion. All knew what they were signing up for—although they couldn’t have anticipated the questions that would arise about the weapons of mass destruction, or the country’s political sea change, or even that we’d still be there four years later. Somehow, they’ve held onto an inspiring, clear-eyed idealism. Or maybe it’s a self-preserving denial. “Everyone is optimistic about what lies ahead,” del Cuadro-Zimmerman says. “Dwelling on why the country went to war in the first place is a waste of time. It’s about making things right now, or at least doing right from here forward.”
Marya Rosenberg had been in the Army for ten days, and she was starving. It was June 2003, the beginning of the introductory summer session for new cadets—and for many, the roughest stretch of their entire four years at West Point. Rosenberg is a naturally lean five foot seven, but she had melted from 134 pounds to 122. Running in the summer heat with a 25-pound pack on her back contributed to the drastic drop, but the real cause was even more basic—and more cruel.
“They wouldn’t let me eat,” Rosenberg, 22, says of the senior cadets running the indoctrination. “I was screwing up everything at first—I couldn’t even march in step. So at meals, they put me at the haze table. They tell you anything you eat has to be small enough to swallow in three to five chews. This went on for two weeks, until my squad started volunteering to switch out with me because they thought I was dying.”