From Pershing to Pagoulatos:
Reflecting on the West Point Experience
Sometime between 2002 and 2004, when the West Point Association of Graduates (AOG) was revising its bylaws, Lieutenant General (Retired) John H. Cushman, the Class of 1944 trustee at the time, began to develop an idea centered on continuing a long-time pledge of the association: “the AOG shall be dedicated to furthering the ideals of the United States Military Academy.” In 2006, this idea materialized into a proposal for the AOG Board of Directors to establish the John J. Pershing Writing Award Endowment, and Cushman (First Captain ’44) and Anne Cabaniss (the widow of Cushman’s friend and classmate Jelks H. Cabaniss Jr. ’44) contributed a generous amount to launch this essay contest. Named for General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing 1886, this meditation-in-print exercise asks first-class cadets to ponder the meaning of Pershing’s famous January 11, 1919, “Opinion,” a regular feature of Bugle Notes in the 1930s and 40s, and relate it to their own West Point experience in leader development. Pershing said…
What the Academy stands for, has always been my guide throughout my military career, and to have approached the high ideals of duty, honor, and service to country that are the real spirit of West Point has to me a meaning that nothing else has. The longer I live, the further I have gone in the Service, the more I reverence the things that inspire the heart and soul of young men at West Point.
This year’s overall winner of the 6th Annual General of the Armies John J. Pershing Reflective Essay Awards competition is Cadet Alexander Pagoulatos ’12 (company G2), who wrote an essay describing how his grandfather’s life-story helped him recognize what he identified as “the true value of a West Point education: an understanding of how to lead a balanced and moral life.” He admits in his essay that he began his West Point career by selfishly mastering all Academy requirements “for the sake of success itself;” but, after his grandfather’s passing in September 2010, he realized that it wasn’t his fortune or possessions that made his grandfather a great man but rather his morals and commitment to support those who could not support themselves. This lead to a change in Pagoulatous’s life, and he re-committed to making the most of his remaining West Point experience. He writes in his essay…
When things get difficult, as they always are at the Academy, one must rely on their sense of rightness to guide them, as my grandfather did in World War II. When things get difficult, one must focus on their priorities to make the right decision. Finally, when things get difficult, one must find balance in their life. I realized that my grandfather’s success was not the end-state, but merely the byproduct of a balanced, selfless life well-lived. When I grasped this idea, my entire understanding of success changed, and with it my appreciation of West Point.
Since 2010, the Pershing Reflective Essay has been a graded assignment in the MX400 Officership Capstone course offered through the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic (SCPME). Judging for the competition consists of tactical officers selecting an essay to represent their company, a regimental officer selecting an essay from his or her nine companies to represent the regiment, and a committee of four faculty members from various academic departments using a grading rubric to determine a brigade winner out of the four regimental winners. Pagoulatous received his gold-medallion award and words of praise from Cushman at a luncheon held in the West Point Club Grand Ballroom on April 13, 2012. Cadets Reanna Johnson ’12 (G1), Chelsea Prahl (D3), and Daniel Livolsi (B4) each won silver-medallions for their regimental winning essays. Brigadier General Timothy Trainer, the Dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Turner, the Deputy Director of SCPME and MX400 Course Director, and Colonel Joseph DeAntona, the Brigade Tactical Officer for the Corp of Cadets, were also present to congratulate the winners.
Cushman, who has read the words of all 36 Pershing Reflective Essay winners, says that West Point is doing a good job in getting the cadets to understand the ideals and principles under which they will function when they get commissioned in just 42 short days. While he admits that there was no effort to reflect when he was a cadet, Cushman thinks it is important for today’s cadets to continue reflecting even after they are commissioned. “Self-examination against a set of ideals is always good for an individual,” he says. Captain Josh Swartsel, a civil affairs officer with the 97th Civil Affairs Battalion and the winner of the inaugural Pershing Writing Award in 2007, has taken Cushman’s words to heart and, like Pershing, believes that the West Point experience grows more meaningful the further away one gets from the Academy in time and in service. Reflecting now on the notion of “transformation,” the theme of his winning essay, Swartsel says, “I find that the process of day-to-day transformation was a greater and more meaningful concept than I could ever completely grasp as a firstie.” When asked how he would add to his reflective essay now, Swartsel started with a line he wrote in 2007, “Real leadership is about how you comport yourself when faced with the day-to-day challenges of a life of service,” but then added…
These challenges will be routine, yet never the same. They will be arduous, yet worthy of our best efforts. At times, they will be catastrophic, yet never insurmountable. It is our duty to accept them, and our mission to master them. These challenges, and thousands more to come, encapsulate the very essence of our justification for existence. These challenges give us our heart and soul as an Academy.
Based on the words of this first winner, the Pershing Award Reflective Essay is providing the useful introspection for which its founders had hoped. Indeed, the longer that Swartsel, Pagoulatos, and hopefully all graduates live and serve, may they continue to revere the values of Duty, Honor, Country, and may they, like Pershing and Cushman, inspire future West Pointers to do the same.