West Point Class of 2005 Gears Up for War on Terror

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," May 23, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

ANDREW NAPOLITANO, GUEST HOST: Fighting the War on Terror (search) was not always a reality for West Point cadets. This year's graduating class started during peacetime. But just two months later, 9/11 hit and cadets began training for a dangerous future.

I'm joined now by cadet Tom Pae — he's graduating this Saturday from West Point — and TIME magazine correspondent Nathan Thornburgh, who spent nearly a month at West Point.

Today's big question, Cadet Pae: Would you have enrolled at West Point (search) in a post-9/11 world?

CADET TOM PAE, WEST POINT CLASS OF 2005: I think I would have just because of the fact that West Point has always drawn me. Just the idea of being a part of something as difficult, tough, being part of a tradition and just the lineage of West Point has always attracted me to come to that academy.

NAPOLITANO: But when you considered going to West Point and did what you did to get yourself appointed there, we were not in wartime. Would your thoughts have been any different had you known what was coming?

PAE: Tough to say. It's tough to say. I'm not sure whether or not the war or what's going on in today's society would have really attracted me to West Point as much as it did before. But, at the same time, I'm still looking forward to just being out there on the front lines and leading.


Now, Nathan, you spent a month there at West Point interviewing Cadet Pae and his classmates. Did you find any feeling among cadets like, "If I had known what was coming, I might have gone to Princeton"?

NATHAN THORNBURGH, TIME MAGAZINE: Definitely. I think these cadets are very self-aware and know that it is a very different university, institution than the one that they entered into. A lot of them came to study at business. A lot of them came for the discipline aspects, that this might be a great launching pad for a civilian career.

So, when people look at the reasons why they came for West Point, I think they really feel like they've changed over the years. What's interesting is that every cadet at West Point has a chance to leave at the beginning of their junior year. This is something that every class faces. And by the time these cadets were juniors, it was August 2003. We were well inside Iraq and they knew that this was a combat Army. And 98.5 percent of the West Point class of 2005 decided to stay the course.

NAPOLITANO: Now, that has to be a credit to your classmates, because, by the time you were juniors, we were already into the War on Terror, as Nathan pointed out. But, yet, I think, if I read the article correctly, this is the fewest number of leaving in the past 15 years.

PAE: Correct. We have a pretty resilient group that is graduating this Saturday. And Nathan is correct. There was an opportunity for a lot of people to quit West Point early on, in the middle of their career. But a lot did choose to stay on.

NAPOLITANO: Has there been an emphasis in all of your training, whether you're studying to be an engineer or an English professor at West Point, towards this war in Iraq now?

PAE: Of course, every day. Every day, it seems like it. I know in a lot of my classes I get direct conversations and direct stories from people who have been out on the battlefields coming back and teaching at West Point. And whether we know it or not, everything they do tell us and teach us has some tie-in with the Army that's out there today.

NAPOLITANO: In your article, Nathan, you tell the story of a young female cadet who sort of went against the grain and fought this attitude and wished that she wasn't there and now can't wait to graduate and fight the war. Tell us a little bit about her.

THORNBURGH: For Cadet Kristen Beyer, it's been a struggle. She was recruited heavily to West Point as a swimmer. She really was excited about leading the swim team and not a platoon in combat.

Her position has definitely changed. She has really fallen in love with flying Black Hawk helicopters in particular. So, not only is she going to stay in the Army and do the mandatory eight years of service that goes along with graduating, but she's actually adding some years on for the extra training that she's going to get as a pilot in the U.S. Army.

However, she still has her doubts. I mean, these cadets are very self-aware about the nature of the business they're about to go into. That's not the point of West Point, to sort of create people who are ideologically pure. They want thinking cadets who understand that they're going to be in a very complex world.

NAPOLITANO: Right. Where do you expect to be a year from now?

PAE: Right now, on a piece of paper, it says I'm going to Germany. But who knows where the Army really needs me. Things could change in the flick of a dime.

NAPOLITANO: Are you and all the men and women that will become lieutenants this Saturday ready to do battle?

PAE: I think we are. I can't say that we're all not nervous. But I think we've got the training, the discipline and the advice from great instructors, great officers and noncommissioned officers, to be ready to go out there and do what needs to be done.

NAPOLITANO: Cadet and soon to be Lieutenant Tom Pae, thank you very much. Nathan Thornburgh, thank you.

PAE: Thank you.

THORNBURGH: Thank you.

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