September 11th, 2013---I was at West Point with nine other CIA students where we were participating in an exchange between The Culinary Institute of America and West Point as part of an ongoing effort to broaden the scope of their students’ “worldview”. This exchange was built entirely on the principle of diplomacy and understanding. In a world where there is increasing pressure on our generation to understand and reconcile the disparity between so many diverse people, this kind of pure diplomacy is comforting to me.
I started the day by following my cadet to a civil engineering class of 18 students where we discussed the importance of dams and levees. Cadets were asked thought provoking questions about the theory behind the science, and my brain was racing to come up with answers too. A cadet to my left looked weary, her head bobbed and her eyelids struggled to stay open. A cadet in front of me was eager to answer every question, even if his answer wasn’t related there was an unwavering desire to participate. I observed the class and struggled to scribble notes that would make my Army Civil Engineer of a grandfather proud.
We left class and headed to get breakfast in a scene that could easily be transported to any college campus in America, the only distinguishing factor was that the people here were dressed in camouflage and their posture was above average. There was chocolate milk and cheese egg sandwiches in this convenience style store where students shuffled in the line waiting anxiously to swipe their cards and fill their hungry bellies. We sat at a table with my friend from CIA and her cadet. We talked about daily routines and the application process to West Point. We exchanged stories about classes, weekend plans, weird rituals, and dating on our respective campuses.
After breakfast, the four of us stuck together and we toured the library and talked about what daily life is like at West Point. Then my cadet and I changed into exercise clothes and ran around campus with a flag as part of a memorial service to keep a flag running on campus from sunrise to sunset in memorial of September 11th.
September 11th was a particularly interesting day to be at West Point, in my opinion, because my eyes were opened to an attitude about these tragic events that I couldn’t understand as a civilian. For a bit of background, my best friend’s father was working at the Pentagon the day that a plane flew into a portion of the building and rocked his world. With every bit of gratefulness in my heart, I am able to say that my best friend’s father was completely unscathed. I remember that day with great clarity though. My house is a short 20 minutes from the Pentagon and that tragedy is very real in my mind. When September 11th arrives each year, I want to honor the day with solemnity and a grave sense of respect.
At West Point, every action appears to be soaked with reverence for something bigger than ourselves. It was eye-opening to me that on September 11th at West Point, the people of West Point continued to observe a natural pattern of respect but also an underlying desire to look forward and not dwell on the pain of our past. It appears that there is desire for strength and ambition to convey their firm resolve to demonstrate resilience and an unwavering committment to our country even in the face of immeasurable loss and devastating heartbreak. The last thing they want is pity. The tragedy of September 11th is real and painful to the cadets and faculty and the family at West Point in a way that cannot be compared to those outside of the direct effects of that autumn day in 2001. I am not minimizing or invalidating pain for those outside of West Point, but rather propsing that West Point as part of the military is a unique community where every single person feels the effect of September 11th. What I mean to say above all though, is that when pain strikes at the core of the human heart, there is a desire to seek refuge from the hurt but also a bigger desire to look forward and seek healing from the loss. I never could have understood this principle without witnessing the desire to look forward set by the example of the people at West Point on September 11th, 2013.
We ate lunch with the cadets in an incredible exercise of efficiency while their mess hall filled with approximately 4,000 cadets that were served and each consumed lunch in less than 20 minutes. As cooks, this feat left the jaws gaping of the CIA students. How could 4,000 people be served and finish eating in 20 minutes? It was amazing and unthinkable to us.
After lunch, it appeared that the CIA students had lost all control of their jaws because they continued to hang open as we toured the kitchen where technology, proficiency, and expertise came together to form a beautiful symphony of food production. We pranced around a kitchen that oozed professionalism and immaculate standards. Not only was there technology beyond our imagination but everything was so spotless---it seemed untouched. How had the everyday use of hot ovens and sticky residue escaped these pots and pans? They couldn’t possibly be brand new, but everything appeared new. Our minds struggled to grasp this newfound, sparkling reality that the West Point kitchens encompassed.
After lunch, the cadets and the CIA students gathered in a conference room to discuss the day and also a book we’d read, Soldier’s Heart, written by West Point’s English Professor Elizabeth Samet, that examined some of the intimate realities of a West Point cadet. A thought provoking discussion ensued about finding the balance between individuality and conformity. Both CIA and West Point share a common mission in developing leaders who adopt a certain set of ideals while also learning how to create a personal credo reflective of their own personality. It can be a fitful dichotomy to exist in, but one that is certainly worth attaining.
Read more about the exchange experience:
CIA/West Point Collaboration, Part 2: @CIA
CIA/West Point Collaboration, Part 3: Significance