It can be described as a “rite of passage,” and as far back as 1871, the Firstie Class at the U.S. Military Academy has annually gathered to celebrate its 100 days until graduation. And, continuing the tradition, the USMA Class of 2023 assembled Feb. 18 at the Cadet Mess Hall for a banquet and then at Eisenhower Hall for the 100th Night Show titled, “Trunk of Memories,” where the Firsties enjoyed their classmates performing a play of skits of their experiences at West Point.
The evening festivities kicked off as cadets and their guests, dressed in formal attire, streamed into Washington Hall to eat, drink, revel and listen to the night’s guest speaker, retired Gen. Austin Scott Miller, a 1983 USMA graduate who served 38 years in the Army, most of them leading Special Operations forces and last commanded all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2018-2021.
The evening’s banquet commenced as Class of 2023 Cadets Christina Lyons, Jordyn Kenkel, Patrick Elter, Melic Belong and Cameron Patterson made toasts to the President of the United States, to the Army, to the U.S. Military Academy, to their guests and a somber toast to the fallen comrades, symbolized with a lone table setting made in their honor.
After the toasts, Belong, the class president, spoke briefly to his classmates that included communicating the fact that they are just beginning their lifelong journey of service to the nation during turbulent times.
“The world that we inherit is an uncertain one, it has always been,” Belong said. “But our role as leaders of character is clear – to lead the nation throughout the hardships of war and the perils of peace. To be leaders of consequence in consequential times. To lead our Soldiers with dignified grace and a steely resolve. May we meet the challenges of the day head on, and push toward a better tomorrow.”
His aspiration for his classmates is that they provide leadership that inspires hope in the hearts of all Americans, and Belong added, “the task is great, but so are you. The future is made by those bold enough to craft it, so in all that you do – go boldly.”
Following Belong at the lectern, Superintendent Lt. Gen. Steven W. Gilland stood in front of the gathering and talked about the journey of the Class of 2023. From Reception Day on July 1, 2019, through the challenges of each year, this class has persevered and excelled to get where it is today – 99 days until graduation.
“Ninety-nine days are left on that journey that leads you toward graduating as a leader of character, committed to excellence and selfless-service, and prepared to support and defend the Constitution,” Gilland said. “However, remember the journey is not over, there is still much to do … this is not the time to start taking it easy. I would ask of you, stay focused and finish strong.”
Then, Gilland said, in what he declared as his profound, mic drop statement of the night to all the Class of 2023, “Don’t count the days – really – make the days count,” which led to a collective ‘wow’ and chatter from the audience.
Then introduced to the stage was the guest speaker, Miller, who will be recognized in May as a recipient of the 2023 West Point Association of Gradates Distinguished Graduate award.
Miller reminisced a bit about his time at the academy to include being the captain of the Army men’s soccer team that defeated Navy in his senior year, in 1982, in double overtime. However, it wasn’t all fun, as he admitted to finding trouble and being reduced to a cadet private, restricted and tasked with 100 walking hours during his senior year.
He did give hope to those at the bottom of the class to keep their heads up and work hard because anything is possible.
“(I would say) I would be the least likely person to be up here speaking to you 40 years later, trust me on that,” Miller said. “Some of you guys are wallowing down there in the bottom of the class, but there is hope for you so don’t give up yet. It is something that you need to believe in.”
Miller, a career infantry officer, took some time to get where he wanted to be, but eventually got to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta where his career took off.
His job in Delta Force was the selection and training commander where he was, “the keeper of the standards … between the officers and the NCO team, you keep the standards and it gives officers great opportunities, like your current superintendent who came through, through this very difficult training to succeed.”
During his speech, Miller talked about one officer who came through Delta and asked him a question as the training commander, “Why do you want to come to this organization?”
“He said, ‘Sir, I want an opportunity to be at the nation’s decisive point,’” Miller said. “I thought about that because I’ve been doing things for several years at that point and I go, ‘that’s what I want to do, too.’ I wanted to be at the nation’s decisive point, then I found myself in Mogadishu – a young captain commanding forces in combat for the first time on Oct. 3-4, 1993.”
His first taste of the military term, ‘decisive point,’ which is a specific key event that, when acted upon, allows commanders to gain a marked advantage over an adversary, was at the Battle of Mogadishu, which was turned into the movie, “Black Hawk Down.”
He then added, “By the way, the decisive point is not always romantic and going to be a great story. Sometimes, it means there are bad things happening at the nation’s decisive point.”
Miller would later find himself in Bosnia in 1996, and capped off his career in Afghanistan, which was the last of many of his deployments serving our country.
“I look back over my career and the opportunities, I said, ‘that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I’m trying to do,’ I wanted to be at the decisive point. That’s my story,” Miller said.
Then he gave words of wisdom to the Firsties in the audience about going to the decisive point.
“Maybe you have to settle for your company or battery’s decisive point, rather than the nation’s, but you’re going to be present there, you’re going to be impactful and a team player at that point,” Miller said. “I promise you, if you do just that, you don’t forget the other training and you continue to move to the decisive point, you won’t go wrong. I don’t care if you get out and go to business school or get to go to law school, go to the decisive point.
“We talk about training leaders, certainly for military service,” he added. “But we talk about training leaders and inspiring leaders for future service to the United States of America … go to the decisive point, that is what I’ll ask of you.”
He did express some added words of wisdom that once the class of cadets graduates in May that everyone starts on equal footing in the Army, no matter what their class rank or problems they faced while at the academy.
“When I graduated May 25, 1983, I realized we all had the same opportunities to be as great as we wanted to be … we had an opportunity, and the question is how will you deal with it,” Miller said.
Miller also said how impressed he is with the Class of 2023 and the current allotment of cadets at the academy, despite what some graduates may think.
“The Corps of Cadets gets better every single year. We’ve seen old graduates come back and they will tell you, ‘The Corps Has,’ but the Corps has gotten better over and over,” Miller said. “What I see when I come up here is my inspiration. The things that I’m proud to be associated with this academy is because every year it gets a little better, and that’s because of the leadership and it’s because of the people. Love your classmates.”
Miller’s lasting words were to trust and believe in your classmates because they can turn into your best and lifelong friends, and to be sharp to get everyone to graduation day.
“You have 99 days, and graduation will be the high point to you – be sharp and get everybody there,” Miller said. “It’ll mean so much to your families and, trust me, it’ll mean a lot if you’re not there – but in a negative way. Look out for each other. That will be a pretty special day at Michie Stadium.
“And, just trust me, you may not be great now, but all of you will have the opportunity for greatness,” Miller concluded.
Overall, 100th Night Weekend is more than just the banquet and show, it is the class coming together to celebrate, reflect on their accomplishments and heartaches, but also taking the time to breathe before the final 100 days move at warp speed.
“It’s an awesome experience. I have my girlfriend here with me,” said Patterson, the class vice president and the master of ceremonies for the 100th Night Banquet. “Just being with my company mates and seeing everyone get along … we’re very close. Two days ago, I hung up sticky notes of about 100 days to countdown, one for each day – it’s getting real.”
Belong also talked about how special the night was for him and his classmates.
“We’ve been here a really long time and it’s a grind, it is every day,” Belong, who will branch Air Defense Artillery, said. “To be able to take some time and recognize where we’ve been but also where we have to go, it is really nice to look at my classmates, who’ve been through thick and thin, and to be here with them and celebrate the night – it is awesome.”
The Class of 2023 is the only class left at the academy that dealt with the beginning of COVID-19. While they were plebes, they were not allowed to come back to finish the spring semester, and the ebbs and flows that ensued throughout the rest of their cadet careers has created a level of shared understanding and respect among the class today.
“The challenges that we’ve faced with the really unique circumstances it shows our resilience as a class and as an institution to keep on keeping on,” Belong said.
Patterson added, “I think every cadet has done (their own reflection) in their own way. For me, I just take time to relax after a run or something like that, go sit down and think about how grateful I am that I was able to be afforded this opportunity to serve and give back to my country.”
As for Miller’s speech, both Patterson and Belong were compelled by the words, “decisive point,” to take with them into their Army careers.
“I find that critical and I am really going to take that to heart and go and try what I can for the Army and be at the decisive point,” said Patterson, who will branch Engineers once he graduates.
“I think the point he made about going to the decisive point, going and being a leader of consequence during consequential times … I would like to emulate the role and the lead of what Gen. Miller and his friends have set for myself and my classmates,” Belong said. “I would like to emulate that and go to the decisive point and do what we’ve been trained to do for our jobs.”
And to tie the evening and weekend into a nice bow, Patterson and Belong were looking to enjoy their time with their friends and girlfriends.
“It is very special getting everyone together and having a great time,” Patterson said. “You want to be here with the ones you’re closest too, and, at the end of the day, all these people around this room who are here cadet-wise, I’m close with all of them – you want to be with the people you are closest to.”
Belong was looking forward to spending time with his girlfriend, Naomi Poss, who attends the University of Wisconsin. They met during the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point a couple of years ago.
“I was really looking forward to spending time with my girlfriend. It’s tough because we don’t always get to see each other,” Belong said. “But, being with her and taking some time to rest, relax and party with my classmates is truly what I looked forward, too.”
However, Belong made one last statement on his feelings about being at West Point as the countdown to his cadet career winds down.
“West Point is a very special place to me,” Belong concluded. “It has been very kind to me. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely has its challenges, trials and tribulations, but I’m 100 percent grateful to be here and be associated with this place and for everything it’s given me.”