Cadets earn Pershing medallion in recognition of top reflective essays through MX400

By Eric S. Bartelt West Point Public Affairs Specialist Date: Tuesday, May 28, 2024 Time: 14:58 EST
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WEST POINT, N.Y. – Through the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic (SCPME), MX400 is the superintendent’s capstone course for all U.S. Military Academy Firsties with an emphasis on an officer’s duty to provide moral leadership. The course challenges cadets to become commissioned leaders of character who demonstrate virtue, honor, patriotism and subordination to civilian authority.

A key part of the course has the cadets look both to the past and future on their own character development experiences as part of the West Point Leader Development System (WPLDS), while studying the enduring and emerging ethical challenges of the profession they are about to enter.

One of the major requirements in the course is the Gen. John J. Pershing Reflective Essay. Each year, every Firstie cadet is required to be graded on a signature writing event, which allows them to be a candidate for the Gen. John J. Pershing Writing Award.

Established and endowed in 2006 by retired Lt. Gen. John Cushman, USMA Class of 1944, the Pershing Writing Award is meant to encourage cadets to reflect on their experiences at West Point and gain a better understanding for how the institution has helped them prepare for the profession of arms and to strengthen their resolve to serve the nation honorably as a commissioned officer.

Cushman, who commanded 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, wanted to inspire cadets with an award that emphasized West Point’s significance in their development. Then, it was naming the award after one of the academy’s most influential leaders, Pershing, and accentuate his legacy and contributions to the Army and nation, highlighted by commanding the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War I. 

This year, more than 1,000 cadets from the USMA Class of 2024 authored an essay with the MX400 instructors identifying the top essays from their sections and then a selection committee reviewing all the submissions. Once the dust was settled and the choices were made, three members of the class were chosen as top essay award recipients and three were chosen for honorable mention.

The cadet authors were celebrated during the Gen. Pershing Award ceremony on May 22 at the Thayer Award Room where they received their medallions and certificates. The three cadets who earned honorable mention were Class of 2024 Cadets Reagan Warren, Christian Dionisio and Carlo Octoman. 

The top three cadets who earn medallions were Class of 2024 Cadet Maximilian Hodsden (first place, gold), Class of 2024 Cadet Brennan McAlister (second place, silver) and Class of 2024 Cadet Maximillian Renfro (third place, bronze).

One of the key elements of the Pershing Essay within the role of writing in the Army profession is encouraging deep reflection and critical thinking, which is essential for effective leadership. There are other elements that are taken into account from learning from failure and reflecting on personal experiences and lessons that may guide them as an officer.

The second-place awardee, McAlister, wrote an essay about how the death of his father at age 16 calloused him emotionally. McAlister spoke about how his father was a good man, but human flaws caused his downward spiral.

“The situation shocked me, and I became, quite frankly, a (jerk) to people and didn’t help those who were struggling since my efforts to save my dad never worked,” McAlister explained. “However, candid feedback from senior officers and growing a relationship with God through the Catholic Church helped me learn humility.”

McAlister said it was “super cool” to be recognized as an awardee, and while being grateful in receiving the second-place award, he does question his worthiness.

“I don’t think I’m cut from the same cloth as (Pershing) despite me winning second place,” he stated.

During the closing remarks, it was mentioned that the essay encourages cadets to embrace the values of Duty, Honor, Country in their future careers, however, it can come with re-evaluating that commitment due to life’s circumstances as was the case for Hodsden.

Hodsden was surprised to discover he had won the 2024 Pershing Writing Essay award from the perspective that he felt he had “so much left to say on my essay and was only able to convey only a fraction of what I wanted to.”

Hodsden said his essay reflected on going through a personal low in his life during the first semester of his Firstie year. 

“After my older sister, and best friend, Hailey Hodsden, died during the summer before my Firstie year due to Army negligence, I grew resentful of my chosen profession and became miserable in all aspects of my life,” said the Dripping Springs, Texas, native. “I struggled a great deal with depression and what I should do next. Continuing the course toward graduating and becoming a commissioned Army officer felt like betraying her memory, but leaving West Point would have betrayed the support and expectations of my family, friends and mentors.

“I wasn’t able to commit to being great and instead accepted being a terrible cadet, barely surviving instead of thriving,” he added. “Only through the help of my friends and loved ones and a gradual realization that protecting what was entrusted to me was I able to overcome my struggle and commit to my dreams again.”

His sister, who was a USMA Class of 2021 graduate, was killed while serving in Germany when a Stryker vehicle she was traveling in was struck by a civilian truck on the Autobahn.

As a Chinese major who graduated and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Defense Artillery branch on May 25, Hodsden said this reflective essay allowed him to analyze his struggles and moral conflicts that had shaped his life and burgeoning career up to this point.

“For the longest time, I kept all of these dark thoughts and low moments to myself, but being able to share them and how I overcame them was very constructive,” Hodsden said. “Knowing how I got to such a low and how I recovered not only helps me for future challenges in my life but also can help others who may find themselves in a similar situation in the future.”

During his first three years at West Point, Hodsden said he absolutely loved it at the academy and thought the “challenges and lessons all felt worthwhile and enjoyable.” Of course, that changed in a moment of tragedy, but it also made him learn more about himself.

“My final year felt like a nightmare and yet I was able to march forward and graduate with my class regardless,” he articulated. “This makes me realize that I may be more resilient than I first thought. No matter what the Army throws at me, I know nothing can ever be worse than how I felt this past semester, and I can take the lessons learned into my Army career.”

As the first-place recipient of the Pershing Essay Award, Hodsden feels honored and privileged to not only earn first place but to be associated with Gen. Pershing.

“Truthfully, I believe every cadet does and should believe that they may be the next Pershing,” Hodsden explained. “With this honor, I will have a consistent reminder of morality within the profession.”

When discussing who were the most influential people on his journey at West Point and guided him toward becoming an Army officer, two people came to mind but only one person was at the forefront of his thinking – his sister, 1st Lt. Hailey Hodsden.

“I couldn’t have made it through this place without her, and I truly loved her more than anyone else in the entire world,” he asserted through his emotions. “She motivated, inspired and led me and countless others, and she was the best officer this Army has ever seen. Because of her, I was the happiest Plebe and the saddest Firstie to ever be at West Point.

“Secondly, I would like to thank my MX400 instructor, retired Lt. Col. David Jones,” he added. “His instruction and example helped guide me and countless other cadets toward the essence of officership and professionalism. I truly feel ready for becoming an officer due to his class.”

Also awarded during the ceremony was the General of the Army Omar N. Bradley Award for Character, which is given to a cadet with a top 10 weighted composite of institutional variables relating to cadet character. The award recognizes one cadet each year who exemplifies the compassion, concern for others and leadership traits possessed by Bradley. This year’s recipient was Class of 2024 Cadet Jaques Schold, who through the words of Gen. Bradley’s late wife, Esther Dora Bradley, in her Last Will and Testament that her hope is the award may shape “another Bradley” to serve and to lead our nation in the future.