Reflections on a Veterans Day at West Point

From George Allen Johnston of Williamsburg: Seventeen years ago my West Point cadet son Seth sent home his Reflections on Veterans' Day.

Ten months later, he wrote that he could see smoke from the collapsed Twin Towers from the Parade Plain at West Point.

Unspoken was the fact that he and his classmates would graduate in a time of war.

Today he is a career Army officer in a command position deployed to Afghanistan.

From: Johnston, Seth

Sent: Nov. 11, 2000, 23:41

Subject: Reflections On Veterans Day

Dear Mom and Dad,

Yesterday was Veterans Day. Today is Nov. 11, the 82nd anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War. Like so many holidays and anniversaries, it is easy to forget their importance, to treat them as a day off work or a piece of historical trivia. At West Point, however, these events inspire a great deal of reflection and respect for those that have gone before us. Veterans Day is our own professional Thanksgiving.

At the opening ceremony to the Student Conference on United States Affairs on Thursday, the conference commander requested that civilians stay off the plain that night to allow the cadets to take part in a vigil at Taps, an opportunity for the 'sons of today' to pay their respects to the 'sons of an earlier day.'

Ten minutes before Taps, I appeared on the apron in Dress Gray, not knowing at all what to expect. In the foggy shadows of the cold and windy evening, I saw the outlines of a few cadets standing along the outer edge of the plain. Though I had never attended such a vigil, I somehow knew what to do. As if I had done it a thousand times, I marched over and silently took my place in that sparse rank of cadets. As I stood at attention facing the darkness, I suddenly became aware of the faint clicking of military dress shoes striking pavement. I turned my head and witnessed something eerily spectacular: without saying a word, the entire Corps formed a phalanx eight ranks deep spanning the entire length of the apron. The ranks were perfectly strait, perfectly silent. And I was no longer alone.

For several long minutes we stood face to face with the night. There was not even a whisper. Only the soft echo of a far away train floated through the fog. Through the blanket of fog I saw a single rank of soldiers marching across the plain. They came to a halt precisely in the center of the field. There was a command. Their rifles took to the sky. Fire. The splitting crack of the shots cut through the night and echoed off the buildings like the voices of old soldiers speaking from behind us.

A lone bugler then began to play Taps. Though leaderless, the Corps saluted in unison. Then the bagpipes started to play from across the field. Amazing Grace. Though the plain was dark, the darkness only illuminated my imagination. I listened vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of far drums beating the long roll, the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.

But like MacArthur, in the evening of my imagination, I returned to West Point. And so the choir began to sing the Alma Mater from the steps of Washington Hall behind us. We removed our hats and stood even taller, penetrating the night with our solemn and mighty hymn.

As quickly as it appeared, the Corps dissolved back behind the walls of the barracks. But I remained to stare again into the darkness until I could hear that familiar train rumbling in the distance. I executed a crisp about-face and started to return to the barracks. But I felt compelled to stop. I turned around and started to walk the other way. I skirted along the apron until I saw him standing there. I wanted to read from MacArthur's statue. And though it was dark, I was satisfied. Before leaving I paused to salute that old soldier -- the man who taught us what it meant to be a West Pointer. The long gray line has never failed us, he said. Were we to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, honor, country.

On Veterans Day we remember those staggering columns, bending under soggy packs on many a weary march, from dripping dusk to drizzling dawn, slogging ankle deep through the mire of shell-pocked roads to form grimly for the attack, blue-lipped, covered with sludge and mud, chilled by the wind and rain, driving home to their objective, and for many, to the judgment seat of God. Always for them: Duty, honor, country.

Happy Veterans Day.

Seth

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