Light at West Point
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“Light at West Point,” Ensign, June 1991, 77–79

Light at West Point

If you were to visit the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, during the winter, you would notice that everything is gray. Known by cadets as the “Gloom Period” or the “Gray Period,” the long winters at West Point can become depressing. The granite walls of the buildings, the overcast sky, the dirty, late-season snow, and the murky waters of the Hudson River are nearly monochromatic. Cadets wear a uniform that is almost entirely gray to attend classes. For official formations, they wear the more formal Dress Gray.

But if you took a closer look amid all this gray, you would discover a flood of light. Its source is the Lord Jesus Christ—and that light is reflected in abundance from the Latter-day Saints of the West Point Branch. For more than a century, this light has provided strength to cadets struggling with the challenges and rigors of a not-so-usual everyday life.

The first Latter-day Saint to graduate from West Point was Willard Young, a son of Brigham Young. Willard arrived at the academy in the summer of 1871 and, along with Henry O. Flipper, the first black to attend West Point, he soon became a center of attention. New York City newspapers published articles with captions like “Come to West Point and See Them—The First Negro and the First Mormon.” Most of the articles were favorable, and journalists were impressed with Willard’s integrity. He graduated in 1875 and served in the U.S. Army, eventually reaching the rank of colonel. He also made great contributions to the territory and state of Utah as a civil engineer.

Church members at West Point continue to succeed and to strive to build God’s kingdom on earth. The academy’s strict discipline and intense demands are designed to strengthen and develop cadets physically, academically, and militarily. The Church provides opportunities for cadets to grow spiritually, making their personal development complete. During tough times, the support and comfort gained from fellow Latter-day Saints becomes a sustaining force for many cadets.

During his first week at the academy, Curt Keller of North Bend, Washington, felt overwhelmed. “That week was the hardest of my life. I didn’t know anybody—not even my roommates yet—and I missed my family so much. I looked forward to that first sacrament meeting all week, praying constantly for strength. Even though the meeting lasted only fifteen minutes, I knew those around me had the same love for Jesus Christ that I did. I received a blessing from the branch president after the meeting, and I felt inner peace immediately. I knew I was supposed to be at West Point.”

The branch, organized in 1968, includes not only cadets, but also officers, enlisted soldiers and their families, and local residents. The average length of an officer’s tour at West Point is three to four years. The standard cadet curriculum is a four-year education resulting in a bachelor’s degree.

The high “exchange rate” of members in and out of the community provides abundant opportunities for service. Virtually everyone in the branch holds a calling. Every priesthood holder is a home teacher, and every female cadet is a visiting teacher. These programs are key elements in bonding West Point cadets together. The monthly visits help bring peace to a cadet’s barracks room and fill it with the warmth of the Spirit.

Each Sunday, the West Point Branch meets in one of the academy’s academic buildings, Thayer Hall. Five days out of the week Thayer Hall is the setting for professors and tests that push the cadets to their limits, but on the Sabbath, it becomes a house of worship.

“On the weekdays we go to Thayer to study worldly subjects,” says Jan Clark, a senior from Rigby, Idaho. “On the Sabbath, we go to feel the Spirit and to learn about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The difference is in the way you prepare. On Sundays your state of mind is entirely different.”

Despite hectic schedules and the demands placed upon them, the cadets also make time to gather for an hour each week in institute class. Craig Manscill drives forty minutes each Tuesday night to teach the group.

“For me, Tuesday night kindles the spiritual fire that sparks me through the rest of the week,” explains Anthony Garcia, a senior from Burlington, Washington. “When I was a plebe (first-year cadet), institute prepared me for my mission better than anything else. Because of it, I was used to loving and serving others even before I entered the Missionary Training Center.”

One of the toughest decisions for some cadets is whether or not to serve a mission. If they decide to go, they must resign the appointments they have worked so hard to gain, with no guarantee that they will be readmitted to the academy. After a mission, a young man or woman must again obtain a nomination from his or her state congressman or senator and an offer of admittance from West Point.

Vincent Barnhart, a senior from Edenville, Pennsylvania, served a mission in England between his sophomore and junior years. “I cried when I signed my letter of resignation,” he remembers. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I love this place, and I wasn’t sure I’d get back in.”

Members of the West Point Branch also grow closer as they participate in activities together. Twice a year, institute officers plan a trip to the Washington Temple. Despite strict regulations limiting the number of times a cadet may leave West Point for a weekend (plebes can only be away for two weekends), cadets manage to attend as many stake dances and activities as possible. Twice a year, they are also permitted to travel to stake conference as an academy-recognized club.

Since many Church history sites are located nearby, branch members often take time to visit these places to learn more about their heritage. Last year the institute sponsored a Church history weekend; members visited the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah, the Fayette chapel, the Martin Harris farm, the Joseph Smith home, the Grandin Press, and the Peter Whitmer home.

“The inner peace I felt in the Sacred Grove was such a contrast with the fast-paced life of West Point,” recalls Troy Baker, a sophomore from Houston, Texas. “I was a plebe at the time and was under extreme pressure from the upper classes at the academy. As I sat there thinking and praying on that special day, an incredible feeling of peace came over me. I knew I was a son of God. That visit gave me the strength I needed to finish the year.”

Another branch activity is helping to turn cadets’ hearts toward their predecessors at the academy. John Lemperle, who served as West Point Branch president from 1979 to 1985, has worked at the academy for the past twenty-three years. He has done the necessary research to do temple ordinances for every cadet who graduated between 1802 and 1880. He has submitted these records to the Church’s Family History Department for approval, and the names have now been cleared and sent to the Washington Temple. Present-day cadets will perform the temple ordinances on the institute’s next temple trip.

Whether performing temple work for cadets of a hundred years ago or befriending those they see every day, West Point Saints continue to serve as messengers of truth. And as long as the United States Military Academy’s Gray Line continues to grow, the gospel’s light will shine on the granite walls of West Point.

  • James C. Brau, a cadet lieutenant at the United States Military Academy, serves as a Young Single Adult representative in the Yorktown New York Stake.

Cadets on parade at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. (U.S. Army Photo, United States Military Academy.)

Dede Broderick and Tim Wren at an institute class. (Photo by James. C. Brau.)

Damon Owens, a returned missionary, at West Point. (Photo by James C. Brau.)

From left: Jon Graff, Anthony Garcia, Jim Brau, and Vincent Barnhart, elders in the West Point Branch, celebrate receiving their class rings.

Bryan Quesenberry and Richie Bratt at institute. During tough times, cadets value the support of fellow Latter-day Saints. (Photo by James C. Brau.)