Since I started writing for the Pointer View, I've noticed something about some cadets I interviewed who've been awarded the venerable Henry O. Flipper Award: a great deal of reluctance comes with accepting it.
Last year, when I interviewed, now 2nd Lt. Zorian Flowers, he was willing to share his remarkable story of the adversity he faced that garnered him the award, however he prefaced his remarks with the following, "well, to start off, I never felt I needed an award for living my life, I was just living."
This year, Class of 2023 Cadet Mercedez Fernandez was chosen as the Flipper award recipient but echoed Flowers's sentiments when I spoke with her and added that she did not see the similarities between Flipper's struggles and her own and felt she did not deserve the recognition.
Flipper was the first African American to graduate from West Point in 1877, while Fernandez, born of Mexican descent, is a cadet who has yet to graduate. Flipper was admitted to West Point when systemic racism and violence were the norms. Yet, West Point today develops initiatives and programs that celebrates all cultures, characters, and creeds.
Flipper had no support, no friendships to speak of with another cadet, but Class of 2024 Cadet Abigail Milanesa and Capt. Rebecca Gogue, G-2 tactical officer, are among the list of relationships Fernandez holds dear.
The differences between the two are obvious. However, the heart and willingness to meet adversity and face it head-on couldn't be more similar.
Fernandez eventually understood like 2021 Flipper Award recipient 2nd Lt. Markus Wright that this award represents all the cadets who overcame what seemed like insurmountable odds and still graduated from U.S. Military Academy.
It represents the precedent Flipper set 145 years ago for all cadets who struggle despite their race, sex, color or creed, and this year, Fernandez lived up to Flipper's standard of perseverance and willpower.
Fernandez’s willpower was cultivated at an early age when at seven years old, she and her sister created a lemonade stand and raised $500 to support breast cancer awareness. This commendable effort would mark the beginning of the trepidation that would impact her into adulthood but would redefine for her what it truly meant to live, serve and 'hunt the good.'
At age 35, Fernandez's grandmother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer due to the mutation of Breast Cancer Gene 1 (BRCA1).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, BRCA1 and the BRCA2 genes are generally prominent in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
About 3% of breast cancers and 10% of ovarian cancers stem from inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.
Moreover, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can be inherited by family members who typically share the same mutation.
Because of this, Fernandez's mother would later be diagnosed with breast cancer, and at age 26, her cousin was also diagnosed with breast cancer.
With each generation, the age range for inheriting the mutated gene would grow younger and younger.
Knowing this, Fernandez felt immense dread about this possible diagnosis.
"This was something that I had feared for my entire life because my mother was diagnosed with it when I was six," Fernandez said. "I think I was seven when she started reconstruction. My parents split during her mid-reconstruction and throughout all the hormone therapy. Those moments kind of prolonged the surgeries, and it was just something I did not like to watch growing up."
However, her day-to-day responsibilities at home and her activities at school would keep her occupied so that BRCA1 wasn't a constant mental burden.
"Money was very tight, and family life was stressful," Fernandez said, reflecting on hardships she had endeavored while growing up in Cody, Wyoming, and later in Gilbert, Arizona.
At age 14, she started working as a table busser at a Mexican Grill called Zapatas. As the years progressed, she found work as a barista at a small cafe called Moe Joes, and then at a shaved ice restaurant called Bahama Bucks. Still, for all of that, Fernandez felt that wasn't enough to assist her family through the financial obstacles they encountered.
"I had to do more than Bahama Bucks," Fernandez explained. "I was so busy with sports, and I was paying for piano and vocal lessons at the same time. School was really busy, so I couldn't really take on another part-time job because the hours were kind of weird."
She had to find a way to make money and support her family that didn't involve committing to another rigid work schedule.
And so, during her junior year at Gilbert Classical Academy, she discovered a profitable solution.
"I wrote papers for college students," Fernandez said. "I was a junior in high school writing college papers."
She received a text from her high school friend asking if she was interested in helping a college student from New York write his paper.
"She asked, 'can I give this guy your information?' I was like, 'Yes,' that sounds perfect. Because I could do that at any time," Fernandez said. "And so, I started writing papers. I wrote my first paper for $300."
Fernandez would slog through hundreds of pages of classical literature to research material for the paper she was getting paid to write. Despite the workload, this was less of a hindrance and more of a way to refine her abilities in something she is exceedingly passionate about.
"I've always loved writing. I've always journaled. I've always written poetry. In the third grade, I won the poetry writing contest, and I would bring home books of poetry," she said with a beaming smile.
Soon, Fernandez's ghostwriting spread through word of mouth. Suddenly, she found herself writing papers for eight-to-nine college students.
"That was my thing. I'm a good writer. I feel like that's the only reason I'm good at academics," Fernandez added.
All the work, schooling and extracurricular activities she was involved with stood tall in her mind like multiple barriers meant to seal away the one thing she needed to address but wasn't ready to confront.
"I had been pushing it off since I was 18," she said. "I needed to do my genetic panel testing for BRCA1."
When she enrolled at West Point, she spent her freshman year adjusting to cadet culture. It wasn't until 2020 that she visited her mother and decided to seek a genetic counselor and take the test.
“I'm finally going do it. I'm home. I might as well,'" Fernandez said. "I waited five weeks to hear the results. And then they called me back, and I answered, they told me, 'you tested positive, not only for BRCA1, but also another susceptibility gene. I think you should come in.'"
The counselor also added that there was a high risk of contracting Ovarian cancer.
The most unfortunate outcome had finally been realized, and yet the weight of the news did not send Fernandez into a mania of dread. She felt no overwhelming fear. She did, however, let out a hearty laugh.
"I actually laughed when they told me," she explained. "Because I can fall apart and think, 'this is something that I've dreaded my entire life, and I hoped that this would not happen to me, but it happened. This sucks.’ Or I can see this in a more positive light. This is good. Knowledge is power. Now I'm in control of my own destiny. I can figure it out. I can get tested. Worst case scenario, I get cancer. I deal with it."
There was no time for helplessness. Instead, the years of supporting her mother, grandmother, and cousin and witnessing their struggles prepared her for this eventuality.
The counselor suggested that Fernandez should consider prepping for surgery as soon as possible, but she needed time to weigh her options and plan accordingly.
A few weeks passed after receiving the news. She reflected on the memories of her mother's recovery and thought, "I cannot do that when I'm at West Point. I don't want to be a late grad, screw that!"
There was still so much to do. Fernandez had three more years to fulfill her requirements at West Point.
"After considering my options, I decided I want to do Ranger School," she said. "I'm definitely waiting until after Ranger School to do the surgery."
It was settled. Fernandez was armed with knowledge. She had a plan, and nothing was left to do but execute.
On her 20th birthday, Fernandez took to social media and started a fundraising campaign to raise awareness for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
"$2,000 is my goal," Fernandez said. "I never thought in a million years I'd hit $2,314, but I posted it, and to my surprise, people kept reposting it. People just kept sharing it, and people kept donating, and whether it was $2 or $200, it was incredible. I remember crying on my birthday as I wrote that check."
When she returned to West Point, Fernandez tackled her responsibilities the way she had done as a high school student, but this time she did it with a renewed sense of purpose and extraordinary passion.
Fernandez enrolled in the Summer Term Academic Program (STAP) to do additional coursework so that she would have a lighter load each semester during the academic year.
She also devoted herself to West Point extracurricular activities such as the Creative Writing Forum, Portuguese Forum, Theatre Arts Guild, Glee Club, Powerlifting, Sandhurst, Corbin Forum, and Grappling.
When she wasn't participating in clubs or grinding through coursework, she dedicated her time to supporting her fellow cadets like Milanesa.
Milanesa recalled a moment during her second semester when she had returned from California during her winter break. Her grandfather, residing in Long Island, New York, suffered from critical health complications.
"I turn on my phone once the plane lands, and I immediately see a text from my aunt saying my grandfather had passed away," Milanesa said. "Because he was in Long Island I thought I could make it to his funeral."
Although she submitted an Exception to Policy to her tactical officer that would possibly allow her to attend her grandfather’s funeral. Her ETP was denied due to COVID restrictions.
"My grandfather was someone who was very dear to me," Milanesa said. "That was something that really rocked me for the first portion of the second semester. Mercedez came to my room one day to talk and I immediately broke down and told her everything."
A few weeks later, Fernandez returned to Milanesa with good news.
"Mercedez said to me, 'we have a way for you to go visit your grandfather's grave,'" Milanesa said. "I brought her and a platoon leader with me to visit his grave, and our tactical officer drove us. Mercedez is the one who set up that opportunity for me. That is something that, even now, I can't thank her enough for. She gave me peace of mind."
Whether it was solving complex problems that impacted her friends or confronting her own dilemmas, Fernandez was poised and ready to tackle any issue and follow it through until the end.
However, there is always a moment when complete control is lost, and you can only rely on the sage wisdom of your mentors. Fernandez learned this last year under the mentorship of her TAC officer Capt. Rebecca Gogue as she participated in a grappling session to get level one and two certified in the U.S. Army Combatives course.
"Fernandez sustained an injury during combatives that forced her into a prolonged recovery period. It took her away from academics and her duties as the company XO," Gogue said.
Fernandez and the rest of the participants were performing takedowns. Her combatant hip threw her, slamming the back of her head hard on the mat, leaving Fernandez severely concussed and keeping her out of commission for five weeks.
"I wanted to get back into it. I wanted to keep fighting," she said. "In the beginning, after it happened, I didn't even know I was concussed."
In the beginning, it was rough. She was in constant pain, migraines and headaches seemed never ending. Fernandez would forget what she was saying halfway through a statement.
"What was really sad was my writing hasn't really been the same since my concussion," she said. "The way I speak hasn't been the same since my concussion. I'll mess up certain words. Pause a lot. And then one day, I got a migraine that was so bad that I had stroke-like symptoms."
Gogue understood how important the recovery process was and had to thoroughly explain to Fernandez why it was vital that she listen to her body and stick to the path toward recovery.
"Having undergone a similar injury myself, we had to have the hard discussion of how we sometimes must put other priorities aside to focus on our health and rely on and trust our teammates to help get the job done," Gogue explained. "Being as selfless and work oriented as she is, she struggled to put herself first, still wanting to do everything for the betterment of the team."
Gogue added what impressed her the most about Fernandez is her ability to accept the hardship of academic and physical challenges while never losing her positive mental attitude.
"She soon realized she had a strong support structure with her fellow cadets and took the time to recuperate," Gogue said. "The situation showed how much heart Fernandez has.”
Fernandez would make a full recovery by December. That moment left a profound impression on her and forced her to reexamine what it meant to deal with physical trauma.
"I definitely have a profound respect for people that have traumatic brain injuries. Ultimately, looking back at it, that was one of my most challenging moments, I would say because you feel like it's never going to end," Fernandez said. "I wasn't myself for so long. But at the same time, part of me is glad that I went through it because now I can help my Soldiers when the time comes. I'm bound to have Soldiers that will go through that."
Currently, Fernandez is still training in Army combatives to get level two certified. The injury didn't dissuade her from taking charge and learning from her mistakes.
By taking ownership of her ordeals, accepting her biological health problems, and going the extra mile to support others, Fernandez added to the storied legacy of Henry O. Flipper and showed that hard work and relentless dedication to a noble pursuit can yield the most significant rewards.
"I've worked really hard at West Point because that's what I do. I work hard, but I also play hard," Fernandez concluded. "I think that the biggest thing for me that will always get me going is related to that Army ism, 'hunt the good.' I think that's so important. Don't wait for the challenge to happen. Go hunt for the good every single day you walk out and feel the sun on your face."