From the graduation ceremony, we walked partway across West Point’s campus, which clings to the side of a small mountain on the west bank of the Hudson River. The property is riddled with very old buildings; the chapel is a real, huge, stone chapel. I was careful about the level of noise I was making inside it, as my voice carries very easily, and I have a tendency to lose track of how loud it’s gotten. Chapels are a space I always have respect for, though, and keeping my hat off in them (as is proper) keeps me mindful of just how much space I’m taking up. We’d walked to the chapel for a commissioning ceremony, one of several the graduates could choose from. Rachel had opted for two: one from the Officers’ Christian Fellowship (OCF) and one from her closest faculty advisor in the presence of the recipient of her First Salute.
In the chapel, a faculty member (and officer in the Military) spoke to those assembled about himself and about each of the members of the OCF he oversaw on campus. After he spoke and the graduates were recognized, they broke off into smaller groups of people they knew, and those there for them gathered around, laid their hands on their graduate, and prayed as a group, one after the other. It’s a powerful experience to be any part of, let alone the focus. Another powerful experience is seeing so many officers in the United States Military crying not for emptiness, but for their fullness.
A simple buffet (and there’s elegance in simplicity) had been set up outside the chapel, so after a quick lunch we headed to the library for the next bit of ceremony: the pinning of Rachel’s officer bars on her fresh, new Class A uniform. Atop the library building is a balcony which overlooks the West Point parade grounds and can see up the Hudson River Valley (which is bookended by mountains covered in robust trees).
The bars in question are a soldier’s rank insignia: the Second Lieutenant shoulder badges. There’s an oath involved in receiving them, during which the new junior Officer acknowledges that they are becoming an agent of the Executive Branch of the United States Government, and that they are accepting this responsibility “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” The American Flag must be prominently displayed during the ceremony. This was where a couple underclassmen who’d walked with us from the chapel came in; they were to hold the flag from her Marine Corps Veteran grandfather’s funeral up as a backdrop to the ceremony. He was her original choice to be the one facing her when she gave her first salute out of West Point, but as he died last year, plans must change. Instead, Rachel’s active duty police officer uncle received her silver dollar, the traditional symbol of an officer’s First Salute, in addition to the Salute itself. A strange moment to onlookers then followed: they both relaxed before snapping back to attention and saluting again. To the untrained eye, it might have seemed as though they’d messed up the first one. Nothing could be further from the truth; Rachel and her Uncle had discussed ahead of time a second First Salute that he would accept on behalf of Rachel’s grandfather.
American Flag still prominently displayed (and both sets of cadets’ arms still holding it steadily), Rachel’s on-campus sponsor—and second in command of the chemistry department—spoke for a bit to those assembled about her experience seeing Rachel through The USMA and the significance of what she was about to do. It’s quite something to listen to somebody you met that day tell you about someone you’ve known your whole life. The real trip is when everything they say meshes perfectly with what you know about this old friend. I knew Rachel was exceptional before she’d even considered West Point; I’m indescribably happy that West Point was able to see it too. Before the official officer insignia is affixed to the uniform, the candidate must take an oath to uphold all the duties and responsibilities of an officer in the United States Military. It’s not a short oath, and it covers a lot, but as I watched Rachel repeat those words, I knew she meant every one of them.
Each time I’ve visited West Point, my respect for those who choose to serve in the armed forces has increased. It started in a positive place, for what it’s worth, but I always had this sense that such people and I wouldn’t really get along. This is, of course, unfounded; we’re all just people, and the walls that divide us are never as tall or thick as they seem. A friend as old as Rachel turning out to be army material was originally a small shock to me, but I see now how it fits with who she was all along. She’s always been honest, and she’s always been driven. She’s always cared deeply about the people around her. In retrospect, these are all qualities I hope all those defending my country possess. Congratulations, Rachel, on this exceptional accomplishment; few can do what you have. I know you’ll continue putting all your energy into making our world a better place as you always have, though now perhaps your theater is a bit bigger.