A Cadet’s Perspective
The following post was penned by an anonymous cadet at the United States Military Academy and represents an individual viewpoint on an increasingly complex and volatile situation. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.
You’ve undoubtedly heard much about “The Point” in the media recently, with much of that news negative. First, the world was introduced to a former cadet, Spencer Rapone, whose images and anti-American rantings on social media ignited a firestorm of controversy. In short order, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Heffington, a former history instructor at West Point, released a sworn statement documenting a bitter encounter with Rapone from 2015. This week, Colonel Heffington followed that statement with an “open letter” to West Point graduates, in which he levied a stinging series of accusations against the Superintendent, staff, and faculty of the institution.
Unfortunately, I can’t really provide any personal context or commentary behind the actions of Spencer Rapone; he was a “Firstie” in another regiment during my Plebe year and we had no interaction. His social media activity, however, is both disconcerting and disturbing. Regardless of his military status, the fact that he finds it necessary to blatantly violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice is another issue entirely. I’ve heard rumors of current instructors substantiating Colonel Heffington’s assertions from his sworn statement; from Rapone’s demonstrated online behavior, it’s probably not much of a stretch to assume that he was openly disrespectful to instructors. Beyond the fact that no one here who remembers Rapone seems to have a positive opinion of him, I can add nothing to that discussion.
However, I have mixed feelings about Colonel Heffington’s open letter to the “Old Grads.” A good deal of what he wrote is not necessarily untrue, but several of his accusations rely on information to which he was not privy on a regular basis. As I sit with his letter before me, I want to address some of those accusations and provide context from my perspective as a cadet.
“…2LT Spencer Rapone — an avowed Communist and enemy of the United States…”
Honestly, I think this is a somewhat “over the top” statement. I understand that Rapone is a “card-holding member” of whatever analog to the Communist Party exists in our country, but I think that we forget that he also deployed in support of military operations, and (so far as we know) has not acted to sabotage those operations. Not to minimize his actions on social media, but I’m not sure that the “Better Dead than Red” mentality is a good enough reason to declare him “an enemy of the United States.” Derelict in his duties? Probably. But saying he is an enemy of the state is a bit much, I think. But, that’s only my opinion.
“…standards at West Point are nonexistent.”
I completely disagree with this statement. Below a certain Grade Point Average, cadets lose all privileges. Period. Civilian clothes, passes, trip sections, sometimes even Spring Break. Fail to pass your Indoor Obstacle Course Test? Same deal. Hell, even the classic Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) standards are not enough. APFTs are evaluated for a letter grade: if I’m not mistaken, 180 is a “D” while a perfect score of 300 only earns a cadet an “A-”. If you want an “A”, you need to “superscore” the test. If cadets fail to meet the physical minimums set for their class, they lose all privileges and are placed on remedial workouts until meeting these requirements. And, just to maintain privileges as a Firstie, you need to score a minimum of 250 on the APFT.
I could continue with a point-by-point rebuttal of the accusations made in this paragraph, but it’s fair to say the majority of his sweeping assertions are not supported by facts. I will say that our current Commandant most certainly enforces the standards. He has been known to bring in a cadet’s entire chain of command, to include the TAC team and instructors, to explain why a particular cadet failed to shave that day. The standards not only exist, they are routinely enforced.
“Every fall, the Superintendent addresses the staff and faculty and lies.”
Again, I can’t speak with authority on the admissions process, so please take everything I say with a proverbial “grain of salt.” I am unsure as to what role a three-star general assumes in admitting individual cadets to this institution; Admissions is led by a colonel with a number of field grade officers operating in support. With respect to the assertion concerning sub-par standardized test scores (for example, the ACT), I am led to believe that the academy believes in the “whole-person” concept and cares about more than simply academic endeavors. If West Point admits someone with scores in those ranges, there are other accomplishments in consideration (preparatory school, etc.) that assures the admissions team that the prospective cadet can meet the academic standards.
I would very much like to meet the cadet Colonel Heffington refers to as “illiterate.” Often, the textbooks we use are “custom made” and riddled with small errors that may make them difficult to read. To infer that there are people here so dumb they are unable to read is a fanciful notion that, in my opinion, contradicts his claim that his comments come from a place of “intense devotion and loyalty.”
“The Cadet Honor Code has become a laughingstock.”
Absolutely not. I think there is a misconception here that the Honor Code is a tool used to separate cadets with character flaws at odds with the code itself. The level to which we are expected to cite academic documents is the stuff of legend here. If we forget a source used in a cited work, we are subject to an Honor Board, one of the penalties of which is separation from the Academy. Obviously, if cadet is so morally odious, the Honor Code should be used as a separation metric, though that is usually not the case. Ultimately, dadet perception of the Honor code is at complete odds with the picture painted by Colonel Heffington in his letter.
Every year, we hear about cadets unsure of their graduation status because their case is being decided by the Superintendent the day of graduation. It’s not uncommon for a cadet to learn on graduation day that an Honor Code violation is preventing them from graduating with their class. The Superintendent has to weigh the merits of someone who, if part of an ROTC program not subject to the same rigid Honor Code, might be a good officer, otherwise. This is not to say that a cadet shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but there is a reason we have certain event-specific punishments that allow someone to “dig themselves out of a hole.”
“Academic standards are nonexistent.”
The main point of Colonel Heffington’s argument is that the Academic Board process is flawed and doesn’t typically result in the separation of cadets who routinely fail classes. I can attest to the fact that the current Dean’s policy is to separate cadets who fail the same class more than once. I have witnessed this with many cadets, so I am not entirely sure of the basis for his assertion. If a cadet fails different classes, each only a single time, their case still goes before the Academic Board for review, after which the board submits a recommendation to the Dean’s office. It’s worth noting that the Academic Board is not usually capable of seeing the whole picture when it comes to the individual life of a cadet, so the final decision falls on someone with legal authority. Separating a cadet is not a simple matter; many people are invested in the success of every cadet here, and because someone is having a rough year academically is not reason enough to separate them. In the end, however, the insinuation that cadets can simply fail until they pass is simply untrue.
“Curriculum has suffered”
On this point, I have very little to contest Colonel Heffington’s statement; this is his department. I think his deep personal passion in this area is evident and, as such, might be somewhat overstated. During my time at West Point, I took U.S. History and, while I might not have received the greatest grade in that class, I certainly did not come away thinking it was framed to be anti-American. Likewise, I took a class in international history class focused on a region of the world related to my assigned language. Latin American history taught me about the volatile nature of governments in South America between the 17th and 20th centuries, but I don’t remember learning anything about gender and have absolutely no idea what Colonel Heffington might have been referencing.
As far as removing a semester of military history, the faculty replaced a 19th century military history course with one more focused on modern conflict to accommodate the supplementary engineering tracks non-engineering majors take. History majors are still required to take both courses. Personally, I like this. I still get my World War II fix, but also get to learn about Nuclear Engineering and Chemistry. I don’t think I’m suffering all that much, considering that we still have dedicated military science courses and summer field training pretty much every year.
“Conduct and discipline are in the worst shape of all”
Boy howdy, is this one a doozy. I am unsure of the cadets with whom Colonel Heffington interacted to leave him with such a strong negative opinion on the current state of the institution. I have NEVER seen a cadet snap or interact unprofessionally with an instructor, to the extent he describes in his letter. To offer some perspective on the issue of civilian clothes, we currently DO enforce the requirement that 4th class cadets leave in the prescribed duty uniform, as outlined in policy. It’s not a huge infraction, but it’s punished accordingly, typically with a negative counseling for a first-time offense. Sometimes — as was the case my Plebe year — this policy is adjusted to account for security concerns, such as large numbers of cadets gathering in highly public places like New York City.
In the case of cadets wearing civilian clothes in the barracks or around post, we have specific policies that address who is authorized to wear what type of clothing, and where. If the Firstie mentioned by Colonel Heffington was in the state he described in his letter, I have no doubt that he would be punished via his TAC team. But, if he was within his privileges as a Firstie, Colonel Heffington would very much be in the wrong. First- and Second-Class cadets (Seniors and Juniors) do not need to observe Evening Study Period and have extra privileges with respect to the wear civilian clothes. While Old Grads who did not enjoy these privileges might be upset to read this, it is authorized. I’m not surprised that the Brigade Tactical Officer (a colonel) would address this with directly with Colonel Heffington; there are often “differences” in expectations between officers working under the Dean and those working for the Commandant. The officers serving under the Commandant exercise command authority over cadets, which is why they have the final word when it comes to administering punishments (something they are not afraid to do).
“Senior leaders are intimidated by cadets”
I am not exactly sure who Colonel Heffington defines as a “senior leader,” but I can assure you that the Commandant (a brigadier general) is not at all afraid of cadets. Honestly, I am not sure if he has any fears at all. He routinely spot checks cadets and, sometimes, entire companies, to ensure they are doing the “right thing.” In my time at West Point, I have never had the impression that any officer is afraid to correct a cadet, much less a senior field grade officer. The same can be said of the non-commissioned officers assigned here. They very much are fearless when it comes to making corrections.
If you want my honest assessment of Colonel Heffington’s letter, here it is: as a cadet, I disagree with most of it. I think that, as a whole, he is upset with the administration and is using his newfound platform to voice his opinion in hopes of incite some change in the direction he sees as necessary. Much of what he writes can be attributed to the fact that personnel assigned to academic roles are often oblivious to cadet life outside the classroom. Teachers have subjects they need to teach, and shouldn’t be bothered with an OPORD of an upcoming weekend training operation. I doubt that Colonel Heffington, even at his rank within the academic department, was privy to all of the cadet-specific information regularly put out by the Brigade Tactical Department and the Commandant’s Office. I don’t disagree that oversight of cadet personal conduct is necessary, and actions need to be taken to ensure that the behavior of a cadet (along the lines of Spencer Rapone) should be corrected before it escalates to the level we’re seeing today. But, to portray this as a systemic issue is a stretch. While many of the cadets with whom I’ve spoken agree with some portions of Colonel Heffington’s letter, most can’t shake the fact that it reads like an Old Grad’s “The Corps Has” ramblings.
On a personal level, I think that Colonel Heffington’s letter further exacerbates an already sensitive situation by striking at the credibility of West Point in a way that can’t be addressed to any meaningful degree. His status as a graduate and former professor elevate his opinion above most others, which only amplifies the negative repercussions. Colonel Heffington undoubtedly contributed a great deal to our Army and our nation, and is deserving of his retirement and his opinion. Despite this, I feel compelled to say that I disagree with the majority of his letter.