West Point Plebes Gain Status

LEARNING: TRADITIONS IN TRANSITION

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ALUMNI gathering for fall events at the United States Military Academy here find that it's not like it was in the old days. Many cadets agree. West Point is striving to change its tradition-bound training system by modifying the way plebes and cadets at the academy are treated by one another. Both faculty members and cadets say revision is difficult but necessary.

It's a change sponsored from the top. Tomorrow's leaders must be more ``flexible, creative, and able to relate to their personnel,'' says Superintendent Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer. With divisions scaling back in size, officers will command smaller light-infantry units and elite special forces, for which these demands are critical, he says. And West Point was not doing the job, he acknowledged in an interview. General Palmer's concerns are heightened by the crisis in the Middle East and the demand for skilled combat troops.

The previous system, known as the Fourth Class System, was arbitrarily strict and often punitive in nature. Under it, the entering class, known as plebes, studied and trained in an atmosphere of artificially high stress and personal servitude to upperclassmen.

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This past summer, the Fourth Class System was placed within the larger program known as the Cadet Leader Development System. Along the way, it became against policy to verbally abuse plebes, or force them to perform unreasonable tasks, such as memorizing upperclassmen's drink preferences at mealtimes or walking double-time across the quadrangle.

``What we are aiming for is professional standards between leaders and subordinates,'' says Col. H. Steven Hammond, director of the Office of Leadership Development. Penalties - including expulsion - result if upperclass cadets violate the 15 official standards of conduct, he says.

Colonel Hammond, who wrote the program handbook, returned to West Point with a PhD in leadership and three masters degrees in related fields specifically to head this project. In a brief discussion of his experiences in Vietnam after graduating from West Point, his conviction is unmistakable. And he translates that into a strong desire to see today's men and women well prepared for tomorrow's challenges.

The program builds responsibility gradually. During the first year of study, the plebe year, a student is a member of what the academy calls the fourth class. During this time, a plebe is helped along by an assigned third-class member. When plebes finish their first year and become third-class cadets, they are assigned a plebe to support. Second-class cadets command a group of three or four cadets, and members of the first class (fourth year) command a small corps of about eight.

Plebes used to have to gather and deliver laundry, distribute morning newspapers, and serve as meal stewards. Now, all team members are expected to help. ``It is the responsibility of the chain of command to see the duties done,'' Hammond explains.

Previously, says cadet Andrew Girard, plebes had to be meal stewards, but those on varsity teams were exempt. Not anymore.

Cadet Doug McCormick, this year's first captain of cadets, says ``not everyone is supportive, but enough are that I believe we're going in the right direction.'' As leader of all cadets, Mr. McCormick is responsible for guiding cadets through the changes. He places importance on combat readiness now more than ever, watching his brother and several other recent West Point graduates go on active duty in Saudi Arabia.

After two years of self-study and planning, beginning with General Palmer's tenure as superintendent, some at West Point are concerned about whether the new program is effective enough. Faculty member Col. Larry Donilthorne, the Fourth Class System's most outspoken critic, claims that nothing short of eradicating the whole system would be effective.

Others are uncertain of the program's direction. Initial changes last spring in terminology and chain of cadet command were called ``good, but cosmetic'' by second-year cadet Chris Patton.

The leader development system is the third major change resulting from the three years of self-study. In addition to the Fourth Class System, academics and the honor system (see box), have also been evaluated.

THE academic changes encourage cadets to identify areas of interest and specialty. The number of required courses was dropped from seven to five, private study time was added, and military history is now a January short course rather than a year-long weekly exercise. As a result, cadets now spend 25 percent of their academic time in a major, according to Col. James Golden, chairman of the last fall's self-study group.

``The intention [of all the changes] is not to make life easy, but to teach leaders to alleviate stress in their subordinates to help them perform better,'' Hammond says.

But some students and faculty members say that the new rules are working only because upperclassmen do not want to be punished. ``It is a challenge to upperclassmen, because it took away a lot of their training tools,'' McCormick says. He adds that more fine-tuning is necessary.

Four years is the minimum success or failure window - time for one class to go through the new system.

Colonel Donilthorne sums up the cooperative position many are taking. ``I hope it is successful. If not, in 10 or 20 years, we'll have to do it all again.''

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