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Cadet Sponsors Provide Time Well Spent

By Keith J. Hamel, WPAOG staff

Photo above: CDTs Nicolas Fraser ’24, Brooke Parker ’24, and Kijana Knights ’24 with the Hudson family

Cadet Basic Training (CBT) is stressful enough on its own, but in the summer of 2020 new cadets had to endure Beast Barracks with the added stressor of COVID-19. “I remember lying in bed on that first night thinking, ‘If this is what being an officer is like, I don’t know if I can do five years,’” Knights says. He found that he missed his parents a lot, even though he told them and himself before CBT that he wouldn’t. As it turned out, by the end of Beast, Knights learned that he now had a second family. True, his companymates and classmates have become family to him, but at the conclusion of CBT Knights also met his Fourth Class Sponsor family: Chaplain (Major) Jay Hudson, his wife and their three kids, who have volunteered their home to assist Knights and five other plebes in their development by exposing them to Army traditions, customs, and courtesies, as well as helping them realize that the Army lifestyle involves a family environment not all that different from what they knew as civilians just a few months earlier.

More than two decades old, the Fourth Class Sponsor Program started out as a way to give plebes “an opportunity to call ‘time out’ and put a pause on the stressors of West Point,” says Captain Jonathan Craig, tactical officer for Company A-2 who is familiar with USCC Policy Memorandum CC-19-04, which sets forth the guidelines of the program. The Fourth Class Sponsor Program, which only involves plebes, is part of the much larger USMA Sponsor Program, covering not only the assigned sponsors for the Fourth Class but also all sponsor relationships, whether formed in the classroom, on teams and clubs, or in other social contacts. The objective of the Sponsor Program is to inspire, coach, and mentor cadets’ development across all dimensions, particularly their social development. But, according to Craig, the Sponsor Program is not just for cadets. “It can be eye opening for the non-commissioned officers, warrant officers, Title X instructors and coaches who get involved with the program to see cadet life up close,” says Craig. Many of the Fourth Class sponsors continue their developmental relationship with cadets through graduation and even beyond.

The Sponsor Program begins with New Cadet Visitation Day (colloquially known as the “Ice Cream Social”), which in a typical year takes place in the middle of Beast, at the transition point between the first cadre detail and the second cadre detail. According to the policy memo referenced above, “This is an afternoon spent at homes of staff, faculty, and West Point community members where new cadets can relax and enjoy time away from the barracks and training”; however, the sponsors need not be committed to the Fourth Class Sponsor Program to participate. Last summer, due to COVID-19, the visitation day did not occur until after the March Back, and it was directly tied to the start of the Fourth Class Sponsor Program.

“In 2020, likely because of the pandemic and this community’s willingness to serve, we had more than 600 sponsors sign up for the Fourth Class Sponsor Program,” says Craig, “which is a lot higher than normal.” Each sponsor was matched with one to three cadets. Nearly two-thirds of sponsors live on post, but sponsors can live as far north of West Point as Newburgh, as far south as Fort Montgomery, and as far west as I-87. Some sponsors even live on the east side of the Hudson River along the NY Route 9D corridor in the towns of Garrison, Cold Spring, and Nelsonville.

Photo left: Sunday brunch with the family of MAJ Terry Jordan

While some informality must be expected in a program that provides cadets an opportunity to relax and take a breather from their daily duties, sponsors have formal responsibilities to execute under the Sponsor Program. In addition to knowing the goals of the West Point Leaders Development System and ensuring that cadets are following USCC SOP guidelines, sponsors are primarily responsible for making sure that cadets exercise proper etiquette while as guests in their home, for reinforcing professionalism via RSVPs and other communications, and for sharing basic military social customs and practices with cadets. Given these responsibilities for sponsors, the Cadet Hostess Office plays an important role in the program, which is often used as a platform to teach cadets about the conventional expectations becoming of an officer. Sponsors are also authorized to make corrections and are encouraged to bring certain matters to the attention of a cadet’s tactical officer, but ultimately their goal is to listen and to give helpful advice and concern for their cadets’ wellbeing and development.

“Just being able to go to my sponsor’s house and feel like a normal person has helped me tremendously in this tumultuous year,” says Cadet Joshua Laurence ’24. “I was going there every weekend for the first two months of the academic year and staying for three to four hours each visit.”

Laurence’s sponsor is Captain Bennett Riley ’10, the Brigade Tactical Officer of the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. “We have a pretty open agreement with the plebes we sponsor,” Riley says. “All they have to do is call, and if we are home they can come over.” Riley says that a lot of his plebes love dogs and visit to take the dog for a run or a walk. The fact that his wife, Angie, is a great cook is a perk of which they will take advantage as well. “It is impressive how much cadets can eat,” says Riley.

Beyond his dogs and wife’s food, the main thing Riley tries to impart to plebes as their sponsor is that they are part of something amazing at West Point. “We get them to pick their heads up and appreciate the opportunities, history, and privilege of attending USMA,” he says. Also, unlike his duties as a TAC (enforcing standards and regulations, professional counseling regarding performance and potential), Riley says that, as a sponsor, he can tailor mentorship to what cadets need or want. “I can influence them in a different way than a TAC and can be more transformational with their character development,” he says. “They will reach out about branching, posting, picking a major, dealing with certain situations, etc.; and my wife and I try to make cadets feel comfortable so they can ask those hard questions and not be judged, feeling that it will affect their military standing in their company.” Riley thanks to the Fourth Class Sponsor Program. “It’s been great to bounce ideas off Captain Riley.”

Photo right: CDTs Evan Walker ’21 and Maxwell Myers ’21 thanking Meghann Terry with a hug as they end their visit

While Knights also appreciates the mentorship his sponsor offers, the best thing he’s found about the Fourth Class Sponsor Program is learning about the family life of an officer. “This is the first time I’ve been away from my family,” Knights says, “and seeing a supportive family who understands the Army life has been rewarding.”

Knights’ sponsor is Chaplain (Major) Jay Hudson. This is Hudson’s first year with the program, and he credits his involvement to other military families who have been stationed at West Point in the past and highly touted the program as a great way to get involved. “Our expectations were that this would be a great way to mentor cadets and to provide a home for them,” Hudson says, “and I hope that cadets learn several things from our time together.” Among the lessons Hudson hopes to impart to his plebes, he lists learning the need to take of soldiers and families, the benefits of living on a military installation, and the positive experience that Army family members can have while in the Army as his top ones.

Thus far, the program has been exactly what Hudson wanted, save for the challenge of COVID. But even in the face of restrictions placed on the program due to the pandemic, Hudson and other sponsors have found a way to support cadets. Take Thanksgiving, for example. Numerous sponsors had planned to host cadets on Thanksgiving Day given that members of the Corps were not allowed to travel home for the holiday; however, COVID prohibited cadets from visiting sponsor homes for the remainder of the 2020 fall semester. So instead of having plebes gathered around his table with his family, Hudson and his wife cooked meals and dropped off their food at one of the approved sites.

Elizabeth Woodruff, president of the Daughters of the U.S. Army, West Point Chapter, has been sponsoring plebes for a total of 10 years. “During our first duty assignment to West Point in 2003, we were looking for ways to engage with cadets and introduce our own kids to ‘bigger brothers and sisters,’ and the Fourth Class Sponsor Program seemed like a great fit,” she says. Coincidentally, her son Jacob is now a plebe in the Class of 2024 (however, USCC Policy Memorandum CC-19-04 prevents parents of cadets from sponsoring their son or daughter). Over the years, Woodruff and her husband, Colonel Todd Woodruff, have formally sponsored 35 cadets (and adopted, in the form of their plebes’ roommates and companymates, dozens more).

“Most of our involvement with the program has been about giving cadets a place to relax, but it’s also about showing them life as an Army family and the rewards of an Army career,” Woodruff says. One of the first plebes she ever sponsored, now Major Jacob Absalon ’07, returned to the Academy to teach in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and has himself sponsored numerous plebes during his four years at West Point. “The Cadet Sponsorship Program is such a wonderful opportunity,” says Woodruff, “and we have been blessed to grow our family to include dozens of cadets that are now living around the globe and making their own contributions to our Army and nation.”

Printed in West Point magazine, Spring 2021, all rights reserved.