July 2, 1973, is a day etched forever in my mind. A day I remember as if it happened yesterday even though 47 years have passed. A day I thought would never come and then, when it did, would never end. It was the day I entered West Point as a 17-year-old kid with big dreams to “become an Airborne, Ranger, Infantryman and lead men in combat.” That was my goal in life at that time. My life changed the moment I reported to the “Man in the Red Sash,” a senior cadet responsible for training the 1,400 new cadets entering that day with me. Less than 700 of us graduated four years later, on June 8, 1977.
That hot July day began my journey to becoming a man. The change began immediately. I reported to that senior cadet, who seemed bigger than life, all-powerful, and all-knowing. He and the other first-class men (as seniors at West Point are called) were in many ways. After all, they had survived their first year and the subsequent two that followed. They had only one more year left, and then they were free! I vividly remember thinking that my graduation would never come. Four years was an eternity to a 17-year-old who at that moment wasn’t sure he could make it through that day, much less the two months of intense training to follow. Those two months were appropriately called “Beast Barracks,” and I soon realized why.
Beast Barracks’ purpose was to begin the transformation from a civilian to a soldier and the inculcation of the customs and traditions of West Point. Talk about change! This was change with a capital “C”! It also had another purpose: to identify and eliminate any new cadet who did not have what it took to succeed at West Point and become an officer in the U.S. Army. To succeed meant being mentally, emotionally, and physically tough enough to withstand the rigors of West Point. If one could not withstand these artificially imposed pressures, then how could you be expected to hold up under the most extreme of mental and physical duress – combat?
Those months epitomized change in every way possible. I endured sleep deprivation, food denial (a very common practice at that time), rigorous physical conditioning, hard military training, and verbal and emotional abuse from the seniors training us. In addition, I had to memorize massive amounts of “plebe knowledge” required of every new cadet. This information was contained in a small book we all received that first day called Bugle Notes. I lost 12 pounds that summer, and I didn’t have 12 pounds to lose.
During this time of dramatic change, I was learning much about myself, about others, and about what it meant to be part of a team. Teamwork, unity, togetherness was drilled into us until they became a part of who we were. Expressions such as “cooperate and graduate,” “help your buddy,” “no one left behind,” and my class motto “Esprit de Corps” were ever-present. No one successfully completes four years at West Point alone. If you do not learn how to work with others as a team, you will not make it through.
Those four years were hard work with very little play, though we played hard! Many sacrifices were required, and when I graduated and drove through those gates that last time on June 8, 1977, I was not sure what I had been through had been worth the emotional, mental, and physical trials I faced. I actually flipped up my rearview mirror so I would not see even a glimpse of West Point behind me. Much change had occurred those four years, and I was not convinced all of it was good. As the years passed, bad memories began to fade and be replaced by better ones. Doors opened up for me that I am convinced would never have done so without my education and training there. I eventually realized those four years had been worth it.
Why do I tell you this story? Just as I went through changes that affected my life in ways I could never imagine, each of you has gone through times of change and continue to do so. Your extensive medical training and life experiences have created these changes – for good mainly but, at times, for the not-so-good. Each of you has become an expert in change! No matter what the change, no matter the challenges ahead, you keep moving forward because that is what you do – adapt and persevere! The ability to adapt and persevere have helped make you who you are today. Is change easy? No, but it is critical to fulfilling our calling to help and serve others. Thank you for being that person. Thank you for the sacrifices you have made and continue to make so that our patients can receive the best care.
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician. He can be reached at Bugle Notes.
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