Video: From classroom to combat

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 5/26/2004 7:08:41 PM ET 2004-05-26T23:08:41

For 202 years, the drill has been unchanged: they come into West Point as cadets and they live for the day, four years later, when they leave as second lieutenants.

Cadet Lorilyn Woods said, “I want to fly either Apaches or Kiowas.”

“Third Infantry Division,” said Cadet Adrian Meyer

Cadet Grace Chung chimed in, “Helicopter pilot.”

“Light rifle platoon leader,” said Cadet Michael Walker.

“Special operations side of aviation,” added Cadet Felix Zayas.

What has happened to the class of 2004 has only happened a few times in the history of West Point.  The entire world has changed in just the four years they’ve been there.  Think of what they’ve witnessed since arriving in the year 2000, including: 9/11, a war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

According to NBC News analyst retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey: “9/11 was such an enormous dramatic impact on all of them … that it changed irrevocably their mindset.”

McCaffrey, West Point class of 1964, went off to earn four stars and now, 40 years later, is back as a professor.

“Their friends are at war," he said.  "They’re sending them e-mails, cell phone calls from the battlefront.… They’re only too keenly aware.  The class I teach now, by Christmas, will be in combat. I just lost my first student — wonderful young man killed in action with the First Armored Division about four days ago.”

These cadets have only seen war from a distance — the pictures on television.  And now, only recently, the pictures of profound misconduct have rocked this bastion of duty, honor and country.  It is an embarrassment, but openly talked about for the lessons it can teach.

“At the end of the day, all we produce is leaders of character," said McCaffrey.  "That’s the only reason to keep this institution going.”

Are they ready?  “Absolutely, sir," said Cadet Chung. "We don’t go to war thinking something’s going to happen to us.  We go there confident, doing our job.  If something happens to us, then there’s gonna be somebody behind us to take our spot.”

Chung has made more than 500 parachute jumps while at West Point.  She knows it will be different when it’s for real.  Her friend Lorilyn Woods acknowledges the very real trepidation back home.

How does Woods deal with the danger, and how cool is her family with all this?  “My family definitely is very scared," said Woods.  "They understand the risks, but they both know that I love it.”

Cadet Zayas added, “We’re not doing what we do over there for selfish reasons.  We’re doing it to give somebody a life that we aspire to ourselves.”

At mealtime the mood lightens up, except for the first-year cadets, who always must be ready for the ritual pop-quiz questions from the seniors at the table.

Next year, it will be someone else’s turn, as another cadet class arrives to replace the class heading off to war.   

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