"I came here to West Point for four years because I have one singular goal of serving this country while we're at war," Bernau explained, again and again. "If you're involved in sports, you don't want to spend all your time practicing and then never play in the game. It's the same thing for us. I always expected to go to war. I want to go. I'm honored to go."These young people can never forget that this is what they signed up for. They hear the announcements of the deaths of former West Point cadets before they sit down for lunch.
Bernau had applied to West Point -- and nowhere else -- five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks precisely because he hoped to be counted on when it mattered most. He was the first in his family to join the military, leaving behind a worried mother with roots as a religious pacifist and a miffed group of friends who later bragged about their light schedules at the University of Wisconsin. But Bernau was captivated by the purposefulness of the Army and the cohesiveness of the West Point cadets. Once a high school class clown, he absorbed the seriousness of the country's oldest military academy: the gray uniforms, gray skies and gray stone buildings; the morning roll call at 6:50 and the lunchtime count at noon, all with a military band providing a drum roll in the background.
When it came time earlier this year for Bernau to select a military branch, he asked to be assigned to infantry, with a creed demanding courage at the "heart of the fight." He liked physical sports -- camping, hiking and mixed martial arts -- that he thought would translate well into fighting an enemy on the ground. He also believed that the most noble leaders earned respect by operating "at the tip of the spear," he said.
Some of the younger cadets are hoping that there will still be a job for them to do by the time they graduate. I'm afraid that there still will be. This isn't a task that will be over in their lifetimes.
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