West Point, NY | August 8, 2022
Written by Douglas Williams [Doug is a Class of 1990 Army Wrestler and parent to current 2024 Army Wrestler Matt Williams]
From Here to There, approximately fourteen (14) miles, 1,910 feet of elevation gain, 36,125 steps, and 5,367 calories burned…. sounds like a typical walk in the park, right? Add to it a 35-pound rucksack and a heat index approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and you just might have the right ingredients for the makings of the infamous new cadet march back from Lake Frederick.
For context, each August, approximately twelve hundred (1,200) new cadets made their annual trek to the academy grounds from their field training site at Lake Frederick. This represents the final activity that new cadets must complete as part of their summer training, and the last major hurdle before “Acceptance Day.” Up until this point, the new cadets have undergone six weeks of basic training, more fondly referred to as “Beast Barracks” where they learn the basic skills of a soldier. In the final week of their summer training regimen, the new cadets relocate to Lake Frederick for a Field Training Exercise (FTX) where they undergo a variety of individual and squad-based activities. Lake Frederick is located on the western edge of the United States Military Academy reservation and overlooks Central Valley. It is slightly off the beaten path which typically elicits feelings of tranquility when visiting. The ambience, however, drastically changes into a chaotic scene one week each year with the arrival and encampment of the new cadets. On the final day of their FTX, the new cadets bundle up their gear, hoist it atop their shoulders, and begin a 14-mile trek back to the academy grounds, hence the name “march back.” The route follows a mixture of unimproved trails and paths that ascend and descend the rugged terrain of the Hudson Highlands. This, coupled with a 35-pound ruck and the typical heat of a hot and humid August day earns the march back the right to be considered one of the more grueling tasks a cadet faces over their 47-month academy experience.
Without too much cajoling, when an opportunity presented itself this summer to join the cadets, I figuratively jumped at the chance. The academy has allowed graduates to join the march back for several years now - the intent being to forge bonds between the incoming class and the long gray line. Having missed a previous opportunity to participate due to covid restrictions when my son, Matt, was a new cadet, I was eager to join the march back this time around. Matt was now part of the cadre in Company B to which I was attached.
Admittedly, we old grads had it a bit easier than these young studs. Our uniform of the day was shorts and a polo shirt with a light backpack to carry water and snacks, and possibly a bottle of Tylenol. In comparison, the new cadets were outfitted in combat dress and full military packs. We joined up with the new cadet companies to which we were assigned at o-dark thirty…. military speak for…. a menacing early morning hour. One could sense a bit of trepidation in the air as the new cadets conducted their final briefs before pushout. This year Company A received the honor of leading this military movement followed by each remaining company in reverse alphabetical order. Companies received a staggered start that was spaced over the next several hours. The march back followed a tactical formation of two single-file columns with spacing of approximately 5 ft between each soldier. The speed of the march was approximately 2.5 mph with several planned rest stops along the way.
When it was Company B’s time to start, the company commander issued a few final instructions echoed down by the chain of command, and we began. The first several miles were perhaps the most challenging along the route with an average uphill climb between 5-7% grade. It wasn’t long before the combination of pace, terrain and weight of equipment began to elicit physical duress. With that said, however, it was exciting to watch how the new cadets responded. Motivated by their peers, chain-of-command, and us old-grads, the new cadets pushed through their physical discomfort and “kept rolling along” as the adage goes.
While time seems to become infinitely slow when performing physically challenging activities, it really wasn’t that long before we had reached the first rest stop at the 3-mile mark. As the new cadets got a brief relief to take their packs off, the cadre bustled about to check on the health of their soldiers. A few call-outs, “drink water” and “check your feet”, were heard over the muffled sounds of the damp morning air. Approximately 15 minutes were afforded for this first break and then we were summoned to “ruck-up” and begin the second leg of the journey.
A few platoons chanted battle cries as they set out, and we were on our way. By now, the morning sun began to peer above the horizon which allowed us to travel without the aid of headlamps.
The next 5 miles passed at a spirited pace through the valleys and hills which course throughout the military reservation. At times, the beauty of the Hudson Highlands begged one to stop and take it all in, but the serenity was quickly broken by the sounds of slung rucksacks, shuffling of feet upon gravel roadbed, and labored breathing as the march continued forward.
We arrived at the next rest area located on the shores of Round Pond Campground around 0830. As we marched into the campground, we met the first group of parents and friends who had come out to wish us sojourners well. By this time, the ambient temperature and humidity had pushed the heat index well into the 90’s. Medics from the 101st Airborne Division who provided careful medical oversight throughout the march back had prepositioned tubs of ice water to assist in cooling elevated body temperatures. These were quickly put to good use with a lengthy line of willing participants ready to dunk their hands and heads. We were afforded a 30-minute break this time around and had an opportunity to grab a bite to eat before the restart. Coincidently, the night before I had camped at Round Pond where my tent was still erect. I must admit that a momentary thought passed across my mind of absconding into my campsite to for a brief reprieve!
On the next leg of the journey, we descended from Round Pond, traversed the West Point Golf Course and arrived at the base of the Victor Constant ski area. As we crossed over 9W on a golf cart trail, a few drivers who were passing by honked their horns in encouragement as they saw the serpentine movement of soldiers winding their way closer to home. The pace quickened as we counted down the fairways and were soon to arrive at the last staging area. For those of you who have played golf on the West Point Golf Course, you may have noticed a large bell near the clubhouse. This bell serves a ceremonious purpose. Each new cadet is given a chance to ring the bell as they pass-by to symbolize the nearing of the end of this march back and accordingly cadet basic training as well. In typical academy fashion, a contingent of the army pep band had gathered on station to welcome the new cadets home with familiar tunes such as “On Brave Old Army Team”. A final rest break was accommodated on the slopes of the ski area before the new cadets assembled and began their procession through Washington Gate.
At 1020 am, the new cadets initiated their final 2-mile leg of the journey in parade formation down Washington Road enroute to Quarters 100. Alongside the roadway, it seemed as if the entire West Point community had turned out to greet the procession with fanfare. Numerous banners and flags waved in the breeze, some of which were quite comical to read. I vividly recall one sign which simply read “Call Mom.” There was also a large “Fathead” picture of the targeted recipient of this message that I can only guess earned the new cadet a bit of jeering from his classmates later in the day. I saw a few “Army Wrestling” signs in the crowd which surely excited our incoming recruits, assuming of course that they had permission to glance around. The march back completed with a pass and review in front of the Superintendent’s house before the new cadets dissipated into their respective barrack areas for some well-deserved rest and cleanup.
After finishing the march back and resting myself, I had some time to reflect upon the day’s events. Putting aside the pedestrian purpose of getting From Here to There, it began to dawn upon me that there was a much more significant intent of it all. For many of these new cadets, a metamorphosis of sorts had occurred. They had started the day with an air of nervousness and apprehension knowing that a fourteen-mile march was no easy task, but slowly, bit by bit, as they progressed one foot in front of the other, over the hills and through valleys, along rockbound trails, their confidence grew. Confidence in their physical and mental stamina and how far they coax their weary bodies; confidence in their classmates and teammates, bonding together in camaraderie and support of one another; confidence in the capabilities of their cadre and their servant-leadership style; and confidence that they possessed the grit and determination to persevere through whatever challenge might be next encountered. Perhaps, most importantly however, the new cadets realized that they were now part of something much more purposeful. They had proven themselves members of a select profession, an American soldier, whose mission is to guard our beloved land. And within that profession, the new cadets had earned the right to join an even more select fraternity, one ripe with colorful traditions, moral obligations, and dutiful expectations - the Corps of Cadets from which springs the Long Gray Line. So, congratulations to the Class of 2026, “For Country We Commit.” Well done and welcome to “the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.”