Carving Paths and Paying it Forward

Categories: West Point Magazine, Grad News
Class Years: , , , ,

By Christina Kretchman ’99, Guest Author

Young Old Grads, roughly defined as those who have just graduated from West Point to those who are beginning to transition out of the Army at anywhere from the five- to 20-year mark, are often the forgotten members of the Long Gray Line. More attention tends to be paid to the connected and established Old Grads who are serving as senior military leaders or who have made their way up the corporate ladder.

In truth, young Old Grads are on incredible journeys, each taking different skills from the Academy and using them in their own ways as they carve out their paths and pay forward their West Point legacy. The following pages share what six young Old Grads have been doing since graduation and how they are contributing to the Army and the nation.

2LT Lauren Johnson with her family
Lauren Johnson '21

Lauren Johnson ’21

Johnson’s journey started early, as she is a legacy cadet whose grandfather, mother, and father are all part of the Long Gray Line. She did not want to go to West Point originally. Initially, she dreamt of becoming a Broadway dancer, but an injury changed her plans. At the Academy, Johnson spent two years as a Rabble Rouser, as a battalion peer support counselor during cow year, and as a member of the Brigade Honor Committee during her firstie year. Branching Quartermaster upon graduation, she quickly found herself in her first unit with the 1st Cavalry Division in November 2021. Before deploying to Poland in February 2022 as a supply support activity platoon leader, she found herself with no mission and no equipment, which brought along its own set of challenges. “I had a lot of time to get to know my soldiers and talked with them often,” Johnson says. “I realized that’s the best thing I could have done, even if I had a large list of tasks I needed to get done.” Just walking around, seeing what her soldiers did and how they did it, and learning about their personal histories had a big impact on her. Her missions in Poland ranged from warehouse operations, which supplied parts to rotational units throughout Europe, to being the mayor of a life support area in Lithuania. Upon return from deployment, Johnson took over as the executive officer of a composite supply company at Fort Cavazos, Texas, where she is today as a first lieutenant. She says the No. 1 lesson she took from West Point is prioritization. “When I was at the Academy, everything was like a firehose, and that’s exactly what the tempo is now for me as an XO,” she says. Johnson strives to be a good steward of the Long Gray Line and one day hopes to return to the Academy as an instructor. Until then, she is having conversations and setting expectations with her soldiers, mentors her sister and other cadets, and hopes to mentor more cadets in the future.

Eugene "E.J." Coleman III '16
Coleman takes commissioning oath
Eugene "E.J." Coleman III '16

Eugene “E.J.” Coleman III ’16

Coleman’s leadership started during his high school years in Alexandria, Virginia, where he developed his love for public service in the Marine Corps Junior ROTC. Old Grad Pat Locke ’80 inspired him to apply to West Point, and she helped mentor him along the way. At USMA, he was named First Captain, served as class president (a position he still holds today), competed on the Boxing Team his yearling and cow years, and double majored in Economics and Management. Commissioned as a Field Artillery officer, Coleman served as a fire support officer, platoon leader, aide-de-camp, division artillery brigade adjutant, and corps deputy chief of protocol while stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state after graduation. In August 2021, a week after transitioning from the Army, Coleman began classes at Harvard Business School. He credits West Point for giving him the time management skills needed for both the Army and grad school. “Learning early on what to prioritize or what level of effort I can put into a certain task in order to avoid burnout has been super important,” he says. Coleman graduated from Harvard in May 2023 and joined Bain & Company in Washington, DC as a management consultant in October 2023. Continued service is important to Coleman: “I am committed to service in whatever form that comes in,” he says. Currently he serves as the Secretary of the Board for Guardian Revival, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting veteran and first responder mental health and well-being. His service does not stop there; he strives to be available to his classmates, if needed. He says, “I am doing all I can to help; they just need to tell me where I can be of most value to them.”

Jessica Sonza and Orlando Sonza with their children
Jessica (Jordan) Sonza '13

Jessica (Jordan) Sonza ’13

Sonza opened her own affiliate location of Sweat Like a Mother (S.L.A.M.) in March 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio, making her a “S.L.A.M. Boss.” S.L.A.M. is a holistic workout program for moms at any stage of motherhood. Sonza, a stay-at-home mom herself as well as a small-business owner, was an Engineering Psychology major at West Point, competed on the Boxing Team (she worked to ensure that it received club status before she graduated), and participated on the Academy’s Salsa Team. Sonza’s first assignment, in the 3rd Infantry Division Personnel Office, gave her a wider view of Army operations than most of her classmates were receiving at the time. She later learned that her superior had diverted her to a more challenging position when he saw “West Point” on her officer record brief. “I was already living up to the place I came from,” she realized. “I had a reputation based on where I graduated from.” While stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia and on maternity leave with her first child, Sonza fell in love with S.L.A.M. workouts. Still unsure of her future Army plans, she knew eventually she wanted to open a S.LA.M. location in her hometown. She left the Army in 2018 wanting to spend more time with her family. Today, she talks passionately about how she instills her and her husband’s love for West Point, their country, and service to the nation in her four young children. “At this stage of life, paying it forward is pouring it into my own kids,” she says.

Orlando Sonza '13

Orlando Sonza ’13

Orlando Sonza, Jessica’s classmate and husband, is a first-generation military member who set his sights on USMA when he was a young child. A Political Science major, Sonza was the command sergeant major for the Fourth Regiment and studied a semester abroad at the Brazilian Military Academy (BMA). While there, he realized how unique the West Point experience is, with its focus on being a well-rounded Army officer, in comparison to the military-focused education of BMA. He branched Infantry, but Sonza’s plans changed when he had an unexpected surgery before the start of Ranger School. He rebranched Finance and served in the 3rd Infantry Division. After four years, Sonza received a medical discharge, ending his dream for a military career but not his desire for service. “I don’t think you go to West Point unless you have an innate desire to serve your country,” Sonza says, “and the Academy provides the best training to do that from a leadership perspective.” Sonza remembers how West Point always emphasized to him and his classmates that they were being trained to lead and serve, but that it may not be necessarily in the military long term. “I didn’t appreciate that until I found out I was going to get medically discharged,” he says. His desire to continue his service to his community led him to become an accountant, first receiving a master’s in taxation at the University of Cincinnati and then pursuing his law degree from Georgetown Law. After first pursuing criminal law as an assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County, Ohio, he now currently practices business litigation. He and his wife have a unique story, and they are beginning to explore what it looks like to give back to West Point as young Old Grads together.

Ashley Ehasz '10

Ashley Ehasz ’10

Ehasz, who grew up in southeast Pennsylvania, constantly felt like she needed to prove herself at the Academy until her senior thesis advisor gave her valuable advice: When it comes to being a good officer in the Army, no one cares if you are a poor kid or a rich kid; what matters is the head on your shoulders, the decisions you make, and the courage you show. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are going, just do the right thing every time you can. “That really stuck with me because it got right to the heart of who I was and how I valued myself,” Ehasz says. She carried this advice with her as she went on to fly Apache helicopters, oftentimes the only woman pilot in her unit (or one of a few). Ehasz’s Army career took her to Fort Bliss, Texas; Kuwait; Iraq; and Fort Riley, Kansas, where she commanded an aviation maintenance troop, rotating her unit through South Korea during her command. After ending her service in 2018, she attended the University of Oxford, receiving a Master of Philosophy in international development. She focused her research on human rights in Latin America, spending a summer living in Colombia during her academic work. She was the only veteran in her cohort and one of the few Americans. She was able to use her personal leadership experiences from West Point, the U.S. Army, and especially the Global War on Terrorism to provide unique input to her fellow students in the program, who also had life experiences that added new context and layers of understanding of international communities. Ehasz has a deep desire for public service that continues today. During the COVID pandemic, she worked in county government helping implement the CARES Act and currently works as a government and public service sector consultant.

Tom Dunn '10 with local child in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Tom Dunn '10

Tom Dunn ’10

Dunn grew up in Chalfont, Pennsylvania and always liked a challenge. His two oldest brothers attended West Point (graduating in 2007 and 2008), and they introduced Dunn to their friends, Academy life, and its values. He immediately knew that West Point was a natural fit for him. Instead of following in his brothers’ footsteps and playing football, Dunn’s competitive spirit kicked in and he tried out for rugby, excelling on the rugby pitch. He charted his own path, double majoring in Economics and Spanish and studying abroad in Spain his cow year. Branching Infantry, Dunn attended Ranger, Airborne, and Air Assault schools after graduation before being assigned to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Germany. While there, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as an executive officer and part of the operations staff. At the five-year mark, Dunn made the hard decision and departed the Army. Attending Harvard Business School, he received his MBA and today works for Old Grad Bert Hensley ’83, Chairman and CEO of the executive search firm Morgan Samuels. The transition out of the Army was a challenge for Dunn. “I was unsure of myself,” he says. “I knew I did a great job in the military, but I found the process of transferring those skill sets to the civilian world to be a bit daunting.” Dunn found help in the form of veteran programs, nonprofits, and even other vets who have made the transition, including fellow Old Grads. Today, Dunn does not want others to leave the military and have the same uncertainties that he did. “I don’t think anyone has ever finished transitioning or struggling to find passion or purpose behind their work,” he said. He has been working with the CEO and founder of the University of Health and Performance in Bentonville, Arkansas to help veterans transition out of the military. The organization focuses on immersive health and fitness education designed to help transitioning personnel achieve their goals. As the company scales, Dunn is assisting the founder with their organizational design and leadership talent. Additionally, he has received certificates in bodybuilding and physical fitness and is working on a certificate in nutrition from the organization.

When the above subjects were asked what it means to be an Old Grad, they all said it was much more than a badge of honor or a “mandatory” yellow Old Grad t-shirt. After reflection, these young Old Grads offered a slate of related terms: “pride; fortitude; commitment to service; good stewards of the Academy, legacy, friendships, and professional relationships; representing West Point in all actions; and living up to a higher standard.” Each of these young Old Grads also mentioned the importance of the camaraderie and friendships with their classmates and other members of the Long Gray Line, with many saying that maintaining connections has become increasingly important since graduation.

The view of USMA in their rear-view mirrors may be getting smaller for each of these young Old Grads; yet, based on their paths so far, their view through their windshields is wide open and their futures are bright. They, and thousands more like them, are well on their way to becoming the established Old Grads of the Long Gray Line, ones who have been giving back to the nation for centuries in the name of their alma mater.

LTC (R) Christina Kretchman ’99 commissioned into the Army as an Aviation officer. She retired in 2019 from Fort Carson, Colorado where she was the 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Officer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and a Master of International Political Economy of Resources from Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado.

Read the complete Winter 2024 edition of West Point magazine here.

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