Class Of 2026 Enjoys Yearling Winter Weekend Celebration

By Eric Bartelt Public Affairs Specialist Date: Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024 Time: 16:12 EST
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The members of U.S. Military Academy Class of 2026 had a chance to sit back, relax and take a breath from their hectic schedule to enjoy a banquet and dance during the Yearling Winter Weekend (YWW) event Feb. 24 at the Cadet Mess Hall. The evening included words of wisdom from guest speaker, Command Sgt. Maj. Brett Johnson, the regimental command sergeant major of the 75th Ranger Regiment, who reiterated to the future officers that they have “one shot” to make an impression in all the things they do in life.

Before Johnson’s speech, the evening’s master of ceremonies, Class of 2026 Cadet Daniel Kim, kicked off the event by introducing the Ring and Crest Committee Chair and acting Class President, Class of 2026 Cadet Luke Monk, who took the stage to welcome everyone who attended the evening’s festivities and discuss how far his class has come in such a short period of time.

“I know it may be hard to believe but we have already come a long way. To date, it has been 608 days since we first arrived here on June 26, 2022,” Monk told the attentive crowd. “A number of those days were spent in Beast, Cadet Field Training (CFT) and Military Individual Advanced Development (MIADs). We’ve also got to enjoy festive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, as well as beating the hell out of Air Force and Navy twice (in football).” His Air Force and Navy comment received a roaring applause from his classmates.

Monk talked about his class developing its character and leadership skills with each step leading to the next, especially upcoming Cadet Basic Training leadership details.

“It’ll be our opportunity to put what we’ve learned into action and make good first impressions on the new cadets of our companies,” Monk said. “For the other leadership details, it’s an opportunity to refine those long-term leadership skills that we’ll see more of in the operational Army.”

He spoke about the phenomenal opportunity to attend MIADs, but even with all the positives, West Point takes as much as it gives with the brutal workload.

“It is during these moments when you remember the small wins we get, one of those being tonight, and getting to celebrate our achievements as a class and with our guests,” Monk said. “So, take tonight, and the rest of the weekend as a time to relax. And remember that graduation will be just around the corner.”

For this evening to go off without a hitch, it involved significant planning that Monk was thoroughly involved in throughout the process. The planning involved script rehearsals, class officer meetings and Brigade Tactical Officer (BTO) meetings, which included the planning progression throughout the months leading up to the YWW.

Monk as the ring and crest chair played a role in the distribution of the class mementos, which included a Class of 2026 wine glass, and the overall setup of the evening, including assigning and setting the tables.

“It was a relatively easy process as we followed the CONOP that was given to us from previous years,” said Monk, who suggested the music for the dance as the acting class president with WKDT cadets among other coordination planning. “It was also easier this time as we did not have to write an Exceptions to Policy (ETP) for privileges as the desired privileges were already outlined in the updated USMA regulations and guidelines.”

Monk praised two cadets for their help in the planning process – Class of 2026 Cadets Taylor Brown and Hojan Hon. Brown, the student government vice president, facilitated the communication with the guest speaker, Johnson, the BTO and the student government officers in charge. Hon, student government ISO, helped by pushing out emails to the entire class on the event details.

Monk sees this leadership experience as a steppingstone toward his future as an officer.

“I’ve already had leadership experience at USMA as the ring and crest committee chair,” Monk explained. “As the chair, I oversee 76 cadets in the setup of class events. Having taken extra leadership responsibilities for helping plan this event has further added to this leadership experience.

“I see this as a larger scale leadership experience as most cadets will have leadership experience with small groups, but I have been privileged to oversee 76 cadets,” Monk added.

Overall, Monk considered YWW an extremely exciting event as his class celebrated that its almost at the halfway point of their cadet careers.

“The cadets were happy as they got to show their guests a part of their life that not many get to see, as well as show them the Cadet Mess Hall, which is a very cool sight to see for people who have never visited USMA,” Monk said.

Another aspect of the evening he enjoyed was getting up to the podium and making his speech.

“I enjoyed this not so much for the spotlight, but because I got to see all the hard work of the people who made the event possible in action,” Monk stated. “I looked out and saw the perfectly set tables, which showed the hard work of the Ring and Crest Committee representatives and the Mess Hall staff. I also got to see the culmination of the student government’s planning in order to facilitate a smooth event. The event was perfect, which is what every planner strives for.”

Before the guest speaker walked to the podium, the U.S. Corps of Cadets Brigade Tactical Officer, Col. Michael Kloepper, introduced him. Kloepper served with Johnson when they commanded together with the Third Ranger Battalion.

“Command Sgt. Maj. Johnson is the best leader I know personally, of any rank in our Army,” Kloepper said. “Johnson has served in every duty position from team leader to command sergeant major in the 75th Ranger Regiment in combat.”

A man who had deployed 19 times in support of the Global War on Terrorism, Kloepper spoke highly of Johnson’s character and leadership.

His character was proven when Johnson enlisted in the Army in 1998 after losing his baseball scholarship when his coach pressured him to cheat by using illegal substances, and he refused.

At the battalion level, Johnson would open each promotion board with an ACFT, which he would do first before the young sergeant candidates.

“In our battalion, when we would deploy to combat and if there was a mission of unique risk, in which the young Trooper, Soldier and Ranger were going to be uniquely at risk more than usual, Command Sgt. Maj. Johnson would be there with them to share that risk. Every night. That’s leadership,” Kloepper expounded.

At the regimental level, Johnson runs the Ranger Assessment Selection (RAS) Program and participates in the five-miler monthly, conducts the 12-mile road march with the RAS students, which Kloepper passionately reiterated, “That’s leadership.”

“So, what I’m hopeful for tonight is that you (cadets) can learn and take just one thing, learn just one thing and put it in your back pocket from Command Sgt. Maj. Johnson’s speech, and maybe he’ll influence you a fraction as much as he’s influenced me in our service together,” Kloepper concluded before calling Johnson to the podium.

Once Johnson spoke his first words into the microphone, he was taking the audience on a journey back to 2017 in Afghanistan.

“As the Ranger NCOs approached the door, they knew this was their one shot. Their one shot to get it right,” as Johnson slowly builds the tension of his combat experience. “They knew that whatever was on the other side of that door, it was of the highest value. I knew it because I was there with them. It was 2017, and they were granted the authority by the four-star for a U.S. led, U.S. entry to get that precious cargo on Objective Mike Marty Nomad, and by God, they were going to do it.”

Johnson said they knew the stakes were high and knew the hazards of their chosen profession.

“It was their one shot to lead the way. What they didn’t know … is what lied and waited on the other side of that door,” Johnson expressed to a captivated audience. “Three hardened al-Qaida fighters were ready to defend their precious cargo at all costs … I want to transport you all back to that night.”

It was 12 degrees that evening in a small Afghanistan town near a border crossing into Pakistan where it was a sanctuary for fighters and facilitators.

“I want to tell you about some American heroes – they were my heroes,” Johnson continued. “That night they came together and displayed the intestinal fortitude and fought on the Ranger objective and completed their mission.”

 Johnson’s mission in his speech was to tell a story about “Triumph, tragedy, a real story, my story. You have one shot to get it right, so let’s get it right,” he remarked.

“As future leaders, you must get it right. You have to get it right,” Johnson exclaimed. “You have to lead the American sons and daughters in our future. That is what this institution is. That is what it stands for. And that’s what you’re charged to do.

“It’s less of a science and more of an art, ART – approach, response, trust – and you have one shot to do it,” Johnson explained. “You have one shot in your approach to the day. One shot and your response. Especially when adversity strikes. You have one shot to build that trust. One shot is my personal mantra … It’s on my phone. When my alarm goes off every day, it says one shot. It’s my daily reminder to be the best husband I can be to my wife, to be the best father to my children. It's my one shot to be the best version of myself today. And be better today than I was yesterday.

“It is my one shot to be the Ranger NCO that those who have come before me and those whose names are etched in stone expect me to be – for them, for you and for America.” he continued.

Johnson returned to the story about the Ranger NCOs approaching the door and said they were “laser focused.”

“You could feel the frigid air touching the exposed areas of your skin. It was worse now than it was before,” Johnson building up the friction. “We did a 10-kilometer offset and that sweat builds up over time, but it made you feel alive.

“The Black Hawk helicopter ride from America's greatest pilots, the Night Stalkers, slipped away and now were gone. And the only thing that stood between us and completing our objective was that door,” Johnson said. “Everyone knew the mission was different, our Afghan partner force was not the preferred force for entry on this night – it was the Ranger platoon. Trained, combat tested Ranger NCOs led by the finest officers in the Army.”

Johnson said that missions like the one they were on didn’t come around as often by 2017, and it was their one shot to get it right. The breach assessment was complete, and the door was unlocked – they were amped to go what they came for and they were in control.

Then came the words … execute, execute, execute.

“The Rangers entered the small halfway above and halfway below the ground 20 by 15 mud hut. As soon as they made entry, you could hear the sound of the AK 47. It’s a distinct sound, and once you've heard it, you'll never forget it. An exchange of gunfire erupted both from the AK 47 and the Rangers within the small, dark and cold room,” Johnson details the execution into the room. “The first four Rangers that entered the room were engaged in a firefight of their life and for their life. Each and every one did not deviate from their points of domination, nor their sectors of fire. They were trained. They had done it 1,000 times. Three of the four Rangers were hit by rounds from the loud distinct AK 47. But it did not stop them. It did not stop them from completing their mission … destroy the enemy and retrieve the precious cargo.

“Over the net, you hear, ‘0327, three enemy KIA, four friendly wounded – need doc,” Johnson continued. “The last Ranger to get wounded was the first sergeant – the hall boss on this objective, the warrior, the husband, the father that every Ranger NCO and officer looked up to. Upon hearing the gunfight, he immediately moved to the sound of the guns, just like he done 1,000 times before. His job was simple. He knew what he must do, go into the worst place possible, knowing the hazards and regain the initiative.”

What Johnson witnessed that freezing, dark night in Afghanistan were “the acts of bravery, heroism and love.”

“What I also witnessed was how training, repetition, attention to detail, trust and how they all matter,” Johnson said. “Their training is what kept them alive. Their discipline is what kept them alive. And in the worst times, they did what they were supposed to do. They had trained to do it over and over, again.

“The enemy gets a vote. They always do. But it will always come down to the discipline Soldier, the professional, the guardian of the American way of life,” Johnson continued. “Our profession of arms starts with you, the American officer, the professional, you have one shot every single day to make that decision to lead, to coach, to mentor and to defend – one shot.

“As you continue your lifelong journey of leadership, remember, when you lay your head on your pillow each night, you can't redo today, there's no resets,” Johnson concluded. “So, treat every day like it was your last. Life is about the journey. Enjoy it. Make our world a better place one shot at a time … (and) Class of 2026, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be here in the center of the greatest institution on the face of the planet. Thank you for what you’re doing and what you will do in the future.”

Monk, as were many of his classmates, were inspired by Johnson’s words as he said, “It is always cool to hear how those experiences shape a proven leader’s mindset.”

Monk felt that the importance of training and execution in action were the noteworthy takeaways from Johnson’s speech.

“It’s important to do a task perfectly every time, or at least train to do them perfectly, as in the Army it can be life or death situations,” Monk said. “More importantly, outside of the Army having this mindset sets one up for long-term success as they work harder and don’t take shortcuts in their careers and life.”

When Monk finished his speech to the Corps of Cadets, it was the perfect sentiment to what he described as the perfect evening.

“It’s truly been a privilege to be here with you tonight,” Monk concluded with a shoutout to the class motto. “To the Class of 2026, For Country We Commit.”